Making the grade

In Chicago, the surprising reasons so many students fail P.E.

PHOTO: Getty Images

Back in eighth grade, Jennifer Nava used to love physical education.

“It is super fun and you feel safe and comfortable participating,” said Nava, now a junior at Thomas Kelly High School in Chicago’s Brighton Park.

But when she started ninth grade, that changed dramatically. “In high school, you don’t want to put effort into it and embarrass yourself,” she said.

Even so, Nava figured out how to pass P.E. But not all her classmates managed to do the same.

Surprising new research shows around one in 10 Chicago students fail P.E. — a higher rate than math, English, or any other class. Yet nearly everyone passes gym in eighth grade.

The failures matter because experts say they could portend eventual failure in high school and beyond.

So why does P.E. suddenly become so challenging in ninth grade?

For one thing, the course changes significantly. In middle school, students may have gym class once a week and don’t have to change clothes. In high school, freshman have gym every day, must bring and change into exercise clothing, and also have to take a health and reproduction class.

Students like Nava say those changes, compounded by adolescent self-consciousness heightened by having to take their clothes off in a crowded locker room and to shed sweaty clothing and rush to the next class, felt like too much.

The University of Chicago Consortium on School Research’s Hidden Risk report analyzes Chicago Public Schools student grades across a range of subjects from eighth to ninth grade. It found that some of the sharpest drops in GPA came in non-core subjects such as P.E. and art.

One Chicago P.E. teacher, Carly Zwiazek, said that, on any given day, she may see up to 200 students, or 40 to 45 students in each of her classes at Curie Metro High School in Archer Heights. Teaching such large classes makes following up on no-show or lagging students is challenging, she said.

She said she fails students who skip class, but not necessarily those who refuse to change into gym clothes. “That is only part of your grade for the day,” she said. “The lesson is to engage based on your skill level.”

She sees P.E. as a lab to learn to manage mundane but important demands of life as adults. “I simply connect it with the real world,” Zwiazek said. “You’ll have to wear the appropriate stuff to work, work with people you normally don’t like to work with.”

But she struggles to convince students, as she battles social attitudes that devalue exercise and gym. “The classes aren’t taken seriously. They are looked at as electives,” she said. “But if they are a high school graduation requirement they should be held to the same level of importance.”

The freshman year conundrum

The transition from eighth to ninth grade is tough, and that isn’t a new phenomenon. No matter how well they did in middle school, nearly all Chicago students see their grades fall when they start high school.

That difficulty surfaces at a critical time: Some education researchers have called ninth grade the most important year in high school.

The Chicago district uses a metric called “freshman on-track” to judge whether students are making enough progress to position them to graduate on time. This year, the district hit its highest measure for freshmen on track yet, at 89.4 percent.

But that figure doesn’t take into account non-core classes like P.E.

What struck researchers was the sharp rise in failure rates in subjects such as P.E. that, only the year before, most students were passing.

In Chicago, hardly any eighth-graders fail P.E., said Jenny Nagaoka, the Consortium on School Research’s deputy director. But in ninth grade, almost 10 percent fail, the research found.

That was the biggest drop in grades for any subject, with an average drop of 0.81 point from middle to high school. The drop was particularly sharp for black boys, whose grades in P.E. dropped one full point, and for students who were already at high risk of dropping out of high school.

The figures are important not only as indicators, but because non-core subjects make up one-third of many students’ grade-point averages.

“If you fail P.E., your probability of graduating is a little bit lower than if you failed just algebra, or just English, or just biology,” said Nagaoka. “We tend to discount less academic classes, but they are as predictive of graduation as core subjects.”

A sharp learning curve

Why are so many students failing or struggling in P.E.? Former and current Chicago students say it’s because P.E. in high school runs into a perfect storm of students’ body insecurities, the logistical difficulties of changing clothing during the school day, and the struggle of juggling classes in a demanding new environment.

P.E. and health class are mandatory in ninth and 10th grades.

Veronica Rodriguez, who graduated from Back of the Yards High School last spring, said many girls in her classes would go into bathroom stalls to change instead of in the locker room. It took them more time, she said, but made them feel more comfortable.

Rodriguez said changing and participating are particularly difficult for girls.  Students who wouldn’t swim during their menstrual periods would earn penalties from teachers.

“They would add a lot of pressure and shame students who wouldn’t want to participate in activities,” said Rodriguez, now a freshman at the University of Illinois at Chicago, about her teachers.

P.E.’s focus on following rules might explain the high number of black and Latino male students struggling in gym. The Hidden Risks report notes that grades in gym are often based on judging compliance and discipline, areas in which research shows that educators more harshly judge male students of color.  

Nava said she would like to see gym teachers be more understanding of teenagers, especially those dealing with their first years of menstruation.

“When a period hits, it’s really embarrassing to have to wear shorts,” she said. “If they don’t feel comfortable playing basketball on their period you shouldn’t threaten them.”

She also said some of the reasons given for changing clothing in P.E. — so that students don’t get sweaty — are less important in schools where temperatures fluctuate. Many neighborhood Chicago schools fail to control building temperatures. At Kelly, Nava said, students roast in classrooms in both summer and winter. Changing for gym, she said, “is not making a difference.”

Instead, Nava said she would tell her gym teacher that she forget her gym clothes and join students standing along the wall instead of running laps or playing basketball. Then, one week a month, she would be sure to bring her gym clothes every day so her grade didn’t drop.

And when it was time to go to another class from gym and she was running late, Nava would prioritize arriving on time. “If I have to pick between my AP psychology class and P.E., I’m taking my AP psychology.”

Focus on the transition

Over the past decade, the district has tried to smooth the transition for entering ninth-graders, in part by focusing on young people who were at risk of dropping out and by zeroing in on students struggling in their core subjects.

The Hidden Risks report, school officials acknowledge, shows a lingering, clear gap.

The district must pay more attention to student performance in non-core classes, Janice Jackson, CEO of Chicago Public Schools, told Chalkbeat. “I can see this influencing practice at the school level,” Jackson said. “There is the next edge of growth, and this data has really pointed that out.”

One model might come from North-Grand High School, which emphasizes the importance of P.E. from freshman orientation, when new students learn they need P.E. and health credits to graduate. P.E. teachers spell out expectations in detail, Principal Emily Feltes said.

“We talk about what to do if you miss a day,” she said. “Even things like, ‘You will have a locker in the locker room, let’s practice putting our stuff in there.’”

The school also includes P.E. teachers in conversations with English and math teachers about student development and how to help a student’s performance.

“I think it has been helpful for us to have them involved in professional learning communities,” Feltes said.

At Sullivan High School, Principal Chad Adams regards the nearly 10 percent P.E. failure rate as “kind of alarming.”

Sullivan folds electives into the literacy department, in an effort to integrate them with the academic instruction all students receive. “We look at standards being taught in English and social science, and try to find standards we can also teach in elective classes,” Adams said.

To fully track how non-core classes like art and P.E. affect student achievement, the Hidden Risk report suggests expanding the definition of the “freshman on-track” metric to consider failure in non-core classes as a warning sign.  

The report also suggests that, in light of the large number of black and Latino male students struggling in P.E., educators review how they’re grading, to correct for teacher bias about compliance and discipline.

Jennifer Nava has another suggestion. She said she’d like to see schools find a more thoughtful way to balance P.E. requirements with the comfort of teenagers in the difficult first year of high school.

“Students have to pick between their own comfort and grades,” she said.

Yeshiva probe

As Yeshiva probe heats up, state issues guidance for reviewing nonpublic schools

PHOTO: Jackie Schechter
A school bus sits outside an all girls Jewish school in Williamsburg.

The state education department released long-awaited guidance Tuesday on the process that local authorities must follow to determine whether nonpublic and religious schools, including yeshivas, are meeting standards equivalent to those governing New York’s public schools.

The guidance arrives in New York City on the heels of a long-running probe into whether city yeshivas are providing an adequate secular education. The state direction also comes after the recent firing of former city investigator Mark Peters, whose office was scrutinizing City Hall’s involvement in the yeshiva investigation.

Will Mantell, spokesman for the city education department, said its officials will “work aggressively to implement” the state’s instructions.

Under the guidelines, local school districts must perform a review of each religious and independent school within their boundaries. But Tuesday’s guidance also folds in an amendment lawmakers passed this spring that largely applies to yeshivas: after an initial review by the local school district, the state education commissioner makes the final determination over schools that are nonprofit corporations, have a bilingual program, and operate during a certain time frame.

The new guidance comes after a three-year city Department of Education probe that found troubling lapses in secular education at the city’s yeshivas and asked for direction from the state, which recently granted oversight of the schools to the state education commissioner. Controversy heated up again last week as city education officials admitted they still haven’t visited many of the schools, whose students often come from the city’s ultra-Orthodox community, which is seen as a powerful voting bloc.

And last week, Mayor Bill de Blasio fired Peters, who quickly warned that de Blasio’s decision could reflect an effort to quash his office’s yeshiva probe. At a press conference on Monday, de Blasio denied that City Hall tried to interfere in any of Peters’ investigations.

The guidance, which stresses that oversight of nonpublic schools be “a collaborative effort,” sets out the procedure the city should follow and provides for a new round of training for investigators and a timeline of three years, up to December 2021, that districts can have to complete their reviews. Thereafter, districts will revisit the reviews every five years and maintain an open dialogue with nonpublic school leaders.

A preliminary city probe found that in many yeshivas instruction in English and math lasted only 90 minutes, didn’t take place every day, and was sometimes voluntary. Lessons in math didn’t go beyond basic division and fractions, science instruction was almost nonexistent, and teaching often occurred in languages other than English.

Naftuli Moster, the founder and executive director of Young Advocates For Fair Education, or YAFFED, an advocacy group that has pushed for more oversight of religious schools, thinks this timeline could stymie needed change. He notes that the city’s earlier review “may now have to be revisited in light of the new guidelines, dragging this investigation on for even longer while students in ultra-Orthodox schools continue to be deprived of a substantially equivalent education,” he said.We don’t believe that the yeshivas that have been stonewalling should be rewarded with even more time.”

In addition to core coursework, schools must abide by other requirements, including conducting “fire and emergency drills” and meeting “immunization requirements for their grades.” (A few Orthodox Jewish communities, which sometimes have low vaccination rates, have recently suffered outbreaks of measles in New York and New Jersey.)

New York City officials have reviewed many yeshivas already, and Elia said the city “should take the guidance that we have provided” and apply it to what they’ve found.

“The State has given the DOE clear authority to visit and evaluate all non-public schools, and we immediately requested the earliest possible staff training on the new guidance and will begin visits, evaluations, and recommendations and findings of substantial equivalency as soon as we’ve completed the training,” Mantell said.

The department will give priority to the “the six schools that have denied us access” and move “forward with the 24 schools that are part of our inquiry, which may include additional visits or gathering additional documents,” he said.

The state’s actions come as the number of students attending Jewish day schools and yeshivas in grades K-12 is growing rapidly, reaching a record 110,000, nearly rivaling the size of the city’s charter sector, which serves roughly 114,000 students. (Approximately 148,000 students attend parochial or independent day schools in the city.)

When asked about certain yeshivas denying the city access, Elia said, “If someone does not allow anyone in from the local school district to review and look at what’s happening there, there obviously would be consequences.”

The first remedy would be compelling schools to comply. But continued non-compliance could mean a loss of funding for certain services, like textbook and transportation, which Elia said is a rare occurrence. Parents at the schools would be notified, usually within six weeks to two months, that their children must be transferred to an appropriate school. If those students stay at the school past the established deadline, they could be marked as truant.

Christina Veiga and Alex Zimmerman contributed to this report.

Fixing Special Education

How will Chicago repair the harm from special-education neglect?

PHOTO: Adeshina Emmanuel / Chalkbeat
Laurel Henson, at the podium, spoke at a press conference in Chicago on Nov. 12, 2018, about her 2-year struggle to get a school nurse on staff to help her son, who suffers from seizures.

Illinois may be forcing Chicago Public Schools to repair its broken special education program, but the ambitious effort still begs a critical question: What happens to hundreds of Chicago children who were harmed by the district refusing them services that would  help them learn?

Neither the state nor the school district is saying yet, even as advocates for students in special education have pressed for answers.

Those children include an unnamed third-grader trapped by a tactic the district apparently used to avoid offering services required by federal law.

The child can’t read the word cat or dog, health-legal advocate Barbara Cohen said, but his teacher didn’t believe in giving low grades. So the third grader received a B in English. Then, she told the State Board of Education on Friday, when the child’s mother sought an evaluation for special education services, school officials denied the request based on his having a good grade.

Laura Boedeker, the state’s monitor overseeing special-education reforms, acknowledged that schools vary in understanding the laws and best practices. Her job, she said, “is to have those discussions and explain what good practices look like.”

That’s not likely to satisfy parents and advocates pushing for quicker action that would help families like the third-grader’s. On Friday, they pressed authorities like Boedeker, who previously served as the district’s in-house attorney.

But with a staff of just three, including herself, it’s not clear how fast Boedeker can move. In four-and-a-half months on the job, she’s only visited 10 of the district’s 600-plus schools.

“Do you have enough boots on the ground, enough help to do this work at the rate you need to do it?” asked Illinois State Board of Education member Susie Morrison.

“We could have an army and not have enough boots on the ground,” said Stephanie Jones, the board’s general counsel. “What we need more than anything is eyes and ears that tell us what is going on so we can take action. Unless we can put an ISBE employee in every school, which is unrealistic, we need parents and teachers and staff members to tell us what is going on.”

Recognizing the lag in responding to parents, the state board is weighing whether to extend the one-year deadline for filing complaints about denied or improper services.

It’s possible, Jones said, that “we can wave this until we have a system of corrective action in place.”

Neither the state nor district have answered questions like: How many students could be eligible? When exactly will the system go into effect? And what roles should advocates and schools play?

Boedeker said that federal officials have insisted that teams who put together students’ individualized education programs be involved in the remedy, because “they’re the ones on the front lines with these students.” 

But lawyer Matt Cohen said he and other advocates want a process that involves more people than the IEP team.

A child who, for example, went without a one-on-one aide for many months or who didn’t get placed in therapeutic day school when needed “might have had a profound loss,” Cohen said.

How the district will compensate that family is the question.  

“They may need more than just a few hours of tutoring to make up for that, they may need months and months of additional services and a specialized process to help them catch up,” Cohen said. “We’re encouraging families whose kids were hurt to bring their complaints to the state, and to seek action to get their individual child’s needs met.”

Jones said that board officials and the school district, federal government and special education advocates are discussing school guidelines for identifying students harmed, notifying their families, assessing damages and offering remedies.

About half a year has passed since a state probe found the school district violated students’ rights by routinely delaying and denying services — like aides, therapy, outside placement and busing — to students in what the district calls its Diverse Learners Program.

The state board’s Jones and Boedeker tried to placate critics by preaching patience.

“From the outside looking in it looks really slow,” Jones said, “but I think we’ve accomplished a great deal in the time we have had.”

Patience doesn’t sit well with parents desperately worried about their children.

Laurel Henson, whose son suffers from seizures, said she’s been pushing to get a nurse on staff at Smyser Elementary for two years, but has encountered “delays and excuses.” On Nov. 1, the school finally granted a meeting to discuss an IEP, she said.

“In that time, he’s had a significant increase in seizures at his school causing fatigue, aggression and bed wetting during the night,” she said. Despite her hopes for the monitor, “nothing has improved for my son and it now feels like neither CPS nor the state are accountable for ensuring students like my son have a free and appropriate education.”