election 2019

Chicago mayoral hopefuls vow to invest in schools, but skirt enrollment crisis

PHOTO: Adeshina Emmanuel / Chalkbeat
Five mayoral candidates invited to a labor forum on Nov. 19, 2018, discussed the exodus of black families from Chicago.

The five candidates for Chicago mayor who appeared at a labor union forum Monday night all pledged to invest more in neighborhood schools, despite an enrollment crisis that has left some with fewer than 100 students.

All five all also said the city should invest more in mental health services, especially for youth and in schools.

While the union-backed forum focused on the exodus of black residents from Chicago, education found its way into the conversation. After all, the troubling trend of fleeing families has caused school enrollments to plunge, budgets to shrink and schools to close.

Chicago Teachers Union Vice President Stacy Gates said at the top of the event that, besides no booing, there’d be little tolerance for continuing “to talk about how to close schools in the city.”

The five mayoral contenders whom the union invited Monday night — out of 18 declared mayoral candidates — included former schools chief Paul Vallas, ex-prosecutor and former police board chair Lori Lightfoot, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, Illinois Comptroller Susana Mendoza and policy analyst Amara Enyia, director of the Austin Chamber of Commerce.

Each promised in one way or another that they’d unify a city they painted as unequal and segregated, starting with stemming the daily toll of violence and improving public education.

Preckwinkle touted her bonafides as a former high school teacher who understands the challenges educators face, and said she’d focus on supporting local schools as she did in her 20 years as alderman.

“I want all of our children to have good public schools in their neighborhoods,” she said, adding that too many schools are underfunded or have been closed in many areas.

Mendoza, the latest candidate to enter the race, said she supports a two-year moratorium on school closings and boasted of her efforts in the state capitol pushing Gov. Bruce Rauner on “evidence based school funding,” which determines the cost of educating students based on certain factors, considers school districts’ resources, and tries filling the gap with state dollars.

Lightfoot emphasized preventing violence and looking at its impact on children in Chicago. She cast Emanuel as “a mayor who has learned on the job in dealing with public safety,” and touted her experience cracking down on police misconduct, an issue that has galvanized black youth.

Vallas characterized himself as someone who has devoted his life to public service, from his time in Chicago to stints running school districts in Philadelphia and in New Orleans post-Hurricane Katrina. He bashed the current mayor for the city’s financial state, escalating violence that Valles tied to shortages in police, especially detectives, and lack of investment in communities.

Amara Enyia emphasized her work fighting school closings, including the National Teachers’ Academy, a top-rated elementary school that is slated to close at the end of the year to make way for a high school, and her support of the No Cop Academy movement led by youth activists like Good Kids Madd City.

The candidates cited everything from crime and lack of jobs to uneven economic development and a lack of affordable housing as reasons why Chicago is losing population. They agreed on a lot, generally speaking, including the need to get the city’s fiscal house in order, create more jobs and reduce violence, deploring a shooting at a South Side hospital several hours earlier that left four dead.

On education, the candidates offered different paths for improving Chicago Public Schools’ financial stability. Preckwinkle said she supports a progressive state income tax, which she said could help produce more revenue that could help public schools. Vallas said reforming the teachers retirement system could free up more funds.

Enyia, who said black Chicagoans have been encouraged to leave the city because of a lack of affordable housing and economic investment, said she would press the philanthropic community to invest more in black and brown communities, and push initiatives to train people in the jobs of tomorrow.

“In our public schools we have to invest in those school career technical education and training programs,” she said, a point also made by Lightfoot.

Enyia charged that the school district doesn’t consider equity in its capital projects and program investments, and said “without an equity lens we cannot ensure every child has access to a high-quality education.” She said she would review how practices such as test-in high schools and school boundary lines entrench segregation and racial inequity.

Vallas tried to portray himself as the most fiscally astute candidate when it comes to schools, saying he left the district in a better financial state after his 1995 to 2001 stints. He suggested that the city do a better job of recruiting police who attended Chicago public schools, especially ROTC alumni, so that more police come from communities they serve. He advocated for universal prenatal and early childhood programs.

Preckwinkle was the only candidate to explicitly support an elected school board. She also said she would freeze charters and school closings, and seek more funds to support professionals in schools.

The mayor’s office wields broad powers over city departments and agencies, especially schools. The mayor appoints the schools chief and members of the Chicago Board of Education, which begs the question of whether or not schools CEO Janice Jackson, board President Frank Clark, and other district leaders will keep their jobs once city government gets a new boss.

That didn’t come up at the forum.

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Sayonara, SESIS: New York City to scrap its beleaguered special education data system

PHOTO: Patrick Wall/Chalkbeat

New York City is scrapping a special education data system that has frustrated educators since it launched nearly a decade ago.

The troubles of SESIS, as the city’s Special Education Student Information System is called, are well known. Since its launch in 2011, the system — which required over $130 million to build — cost the city tens of millions of dollars in settlements, at times malfunctioned more than 800,000 times a day, and made it difficult to track whether students with disabilities are getting the services they need.

Education department officials said they have been able to “stabilize” the system in recent years. But they also have concluded that an entirely different system is needed. On Friday, they announced that they would phase SESIS out and replace it with something new — at a cost and on a timeline that is not yet clear.

The announcement comes on the eve of a City Council hearing set for Monday where council members say they will press for more transparency about special education.

“It was originally designed as a document management system,” Lauren Siciliano, the education department’s Deputy Chief Operating Officer, said about SESIS. “Think more of a filing cabinet right now as opposed to being able to follow a student through the process.”

Special education teachers often spent hours navigating a maze of drop-down menus — inputting data such as whether they met with a student and for how long — only to experience error messages that erased their answers.

Megan Moskop, a former special education teacher at M.S. 324 in Washington Heights, said she once encountered 41 error messages in two hours. What’s more, she said, the system didn’t reflect the experiences she had with her students.

“At the end of the day, I would be expected to go in, mark that they are present, mark whether they made progress toward a goal,” Moskop said. “It’s very standardized.”

It is not yet clear how quickly the education department will phase SESIS out. Officials said the city would begin a multistage process of identifying a vendor to create a new system by the end of March, then would ask for more detailed plans by the end of 2019. An official purchasing process would happen after that, Siciliano said, meaning that construction of  a new system will not begin for well over a year. Families and educators would be consulted throughout, officials said.

Linda Chen, the department’s chief academic officer, said a new system would lead to tangible improvements for students with disabilities.

“I do think that if we have clear and reliable visibility into the data it would absolutely allow us to better serve our students,” Chen said.

Flaws with SESIS have made it difficult to know how well the city is serving students with disabilities. Because the system was not set up to communicate with other city databases, city officials have had to manually tabulate data across systems. And the annual reports that show whether students are receiving required services may not be accurate because of the system’s flaws, officials have warned.

The system’s glitches also made the user experience so cumbersome that teachers had to spend time on nights and weekends entering data. An arbitrator eventually ordered the city to pay over $38 million in teacher overtime.

Additionally, the system has sparked legal action. Former Public Advocate Letitia James filed a lawsuit claiming that SESIS was to blame for some children not receiving services as well as lost Medicaid payments. Between 2012 and 2015, according to the IBO, the city collected $373 million less in Medicaid reimbursements than officials projected.

Some advocates said that given SESIS’s troubled history, it makes sense to find alternatives.

“There has to be a strong data system in place,” said Maggie Moroff, a disability policy expert at Advocates for Children, a nonprofit advocacy organization. “We are eager to see a better system to be put in place, but are really worried about that transition period.”

Advocates have also pushed the city to make the data SESIS tracks directly available to parents.

“We will absolutely be looking at that,” Siciliano said.

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Charter schools racing to find new buildings as district ends their leases

PHOTO: Koby Levin
Escuela Avancemos will move to a new building.

At least two Detroit charter schools are racing against the clock to find new buildings for more than 500 students next fall after the city district decided not to renew their leases.

It’s the latest move in an ongoing effort by the Detroit Public Schools Community District to get out of the charter business, and it means another bout of uncertainty for schools that enroll hundreds of children in Detroit.

Leaders of GEE-Edmonson Academy and GEE-White Academy face the daunting challenge of finding new buildings before the start of the next school year. Another school, Escuela Avancemos, already found a new building. More schools, including Rutherford Winans Academy, have leases that expire this year, but their representatives did not return requests for comment on whether their lease was renewed.

Most students at the two schools run by Global Educational Excellence (GEE) walk every day, Superintendent Michael Conran said. If a new building can’t be found in those neighborhoods, the school’s would face new transportation challenges, casting doubt on their ability to maintain their enrollment.

“We were clearly not anticipating that the leases would not be renewed,” Conran said. “That news came pretty late, I believe it was after the New Year. That’s quite a notification to the boards in such a short period of time.”

The challenges for these schools don’t end there. The district could also decline to renew their charters for the GEE schools when they expire in June, potentially forcing them to find new backers as well as new buildings.

More than one charter school has already jumped ship. Escuela Avancemos, a small school in southwest Detroit, will begin the coming year in a new building and with a new authorizer, Central Michigan University. Officials had begun searching for a new building even before they were notified last month that their lease would not be renewed.

“For the protection of our school, we’ve had to take matters into our own hands to guarantee our future,” said Sean Townsin, principal at Escuela Avancemos.

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti made clear soon after he took the helm of the district in 2017 that he believed the district’s resources should be channeled toward its own students, not toward charter schools.

He reiterated that position last year when the district severed its ties with a three-school network of charter schools, forcing it to scramble to find new buildings and a new charter. Parents were forced to choose between an extraordinarily long commute to the new site and making an unwanted switch to another school. Enrollment was cut in half.

Supporters of the move pointed out at the time that those schools had been district schools until they were spun off by state-appointed emergency managers. In a city with lots of school options and few quality schools, they argued, some consolidation is necessary.

Most charters in Detroit are overseen by Michigan’s public universities, but 10 schools are supervised by the Detroit district.

A handful of those schools also rent their school buildings from the district, putting them in a particularly vulnerable position should the district decide that it would rather not support charter schools — its chief competitors for students and state funding.

In a statement about those schools, Chrystal Wilson, a spokeswoman for the district, said the the charter schools could eventually be replaced with district schools.

“Now that we have the leadership to rebuild the district, we need to review and maximize our property assets. This means possibly re-using currently leased schools for new DPSCD schools, replacing older buildings with high repair costs, or adding a school in an area where facility usage and class sizes are high where another traditional public school does not exist. We understand and accept if district charters are leaving for other authorizers.”

No matter the district’s plans, Conran said the Global Educational Excellence schools would continue trying to serve students.

But he asked for transparency from the district and time to plan.

“I’m just simply waiting to hear from DPS any decisions they anticipate making in as timely a manner as we need to make sure we can continue to support these students and their families,” he said.