Are Children Learning

How will Chicago schools improve special education after state takeover? Parents haven’t heard.

PHOTO: Elaine Chen / Chalkbeat
Parent members of Community Organizing and Family Issues in Chicago discuss on July 31, 2018, how to advocate for their special-needs children.

Parents of children with special needs say they haven’t heard yet from Chicago Public Schools about how it plans to enact education improvements prompted by a state investigation.

The state takeover of special education at Chicago schools stems from an inquiry launched last fall by the Illinois State Board of Education that found the district’s Diverse Learners program violated students’ rights by routinely delaying and denying services, from speech and occupational therapy to busing and classroom aides.

However, the group Parents 4 Teachers said the school district has yet to inform parents and guardians about the investigation, that the probe surfaced serious problems and that students might be eligible for compensatory services that were stalled or denied. A state-appointed monitor now oversees the program, and has to approve any changes the district proposes to special education policies and procedures for at least three years.

Erica Clark, a founding member of Parents 4 Teachers, said the school district should have already sent out letters and emails to parents keeping them abreast of what’s happening.

“They should have sent it before the end of last school year,” she said. “Now we’re in October. People are already having IEP [Individualized Education Plan] meetings, people are trying to get services for their kids,” Clark said, referring to the plans that identify needs, goals, and services for a student with a disability.

The lack of communication is particularly alarming, Clark said, given that her group is hearing complaints from parents “similar to what we’ve been hearing for the last couple of years: that services aren’t being provided the way they should.” Last week, Parents 4 Teachers began surveying to gauge how widespread the issue is.

Clark said her group would have survey results by the end of the week.

The special education public inquiry was spurred last fall by an open letter from a group of public education advocates, including Parents 4 Teachers, the Chicago Teachers Union, Raise Your Hand, Access Living and others. Their argument that district policies enacted during a 2016 overhaul of special education were violating federal laws was bolstered by investigative reporting from WBEZ, Chicago’s public radio station.

The school district didn’t respond to interview requests for this story, nor did it comment on its lack of communication to parents about the state monitor.

But Illinois State Board Of Education spokeswoman Jackie Matthews said this week that the state is finalizing a letter to notify parents about actions overseen by the monitor that will affect their children, and also about the findings of its investigation and recommended reforms.

The board has already issued many recommendations, such as identifying students whose services were delayed or denied so their parents may seek remedies.

The board also advised that the district provide “training and communications to parents and guardians throughout the year regarding their rights, data-driven decision-making, the ISBE Parent’s Guide, and a list of free and low-cost legal services.”

Matthews said that the monitor is overseeing training by the district to help parents and guardians understand special education services and know their rights. October trainings, through the school district’s Parent University and Office of Diverse Learner Supports and Services, focus on navigating the process for Individualized Education Programs.

Here’s a list of this month’s trainings, all from 10 a.m. to noon:
Oct. 10, Sullivan High School, 6631 N. Bosworth Ave.
Oct. 18, Corliss High School, 821 E. 103rd St.
Oct. 19, Dyett High School, 555 E. 51st St.
Oct. 23, Perez High School, 2001 S. Throop St.
Oct. 25, Avondale/Logandale, 3212 W. George St.
Oct. 30, Bogan High School, 3939 W. 79th St.

About 50 parents attended last month’s trainings about the federal and state laws that protect students with special needs and their caregivers, and dictate how schools are supposed to serve them, Matthews said.

Earlier this week, the Illinois State Board of Education tweeted a link to a presentation about the state monitor, detailed changes anticipated with the state takeover, and provided a “Bill of Rights,” for parents with students in special education.

Parents and community organizations have long helped other parents navigate the school system. In July during a Chalkbeat Listening Tour stop at Community Organizing and Family Issues (COFI) on the Near West Side, reporters spoke with a dozen caregivers about how to best advocate for children with special needs.

You can read their advice here.

the grades are in

Search for your Indiana school’s 2018 A-F grades

PHOTO: Andersen Ross/Getty Images

Indiana schools’ 2018 A-F grades were released Wednesday, and most schools have two grades this year.

One grade is the usual annual rating from the state, which is mainly based on test scores and how much scores improve. These ratings can trigger intervention for schools receiving F grades several years in a row.

The other grade, which is new this year, comes from new federal standards under the Every Student Succeeds Act. This rating looks at how public schools serve students of color, students from low-income families, English learners, and students with disabilities.

The state measured schools more generously than the federal standards: Nearly two-thirds of schools received As or Bs under the Indiana system. About a third of schools received a higher letter grade in the state system than under federal standards.

Read more: Many Indiana schools receive F grades for how they serve students of color and those with disabilities

Read more: How many Indiana schools got As in 2018? Depends if state or feds are doing the grading.

Most schools didn’t see a change in their state grade from last year, a trend that continues because test scores remain largely stagnant.

New schools and schools that join the Indianapolis Public Schools innovation network can opt to be graded by the state for three years based only on how much their test scores improve — a measure known as growth — without factoring in passing rates.

Find your school’s A-F grades in our searchable database below.

Decision day

A state board decision on two long-struggling Pueblo schools could affect the entire district

PHOTO: Andrea Chu/Getty Images

A year after running out of chances to improve on their own, two Pueblo middle schools will be making a return appearance in front of the State Board of Education this week.

Heroes Middle School and Risley International Academy of Innovation have spent the last eight years on a watch list for low-performing schools. A year ago, the state board ordered them along with five school districts and 10 other schools to craft plans to improve — and warned them that too little progress could lead to sharper consequences in the future. It was the first time state regulators faced these decisions under Colorado’s school accountability system.

Many of the schools and districts on the state watchlist have managed to improve enough to avoid further intervention, including Bessemer Elementary, also in Pueblo City Schools.

But even after working with a nonprofit group to improve the quality of teaching, the two schools failed to advance on Colorado’s school rating system, which is largely based on performance on standardized tests. Their test scores left Heroes at the second lowest rating, where it has been for several years, and Risley on “turnaround,” the lowest possible rating, despite some improvement in some subject areas and grade levels.

On Wednesday, state board members will hold a hearing on the future of Heroes and Risley— along with the entire Adams 14 district and its high school. They’ll be taking into account recommendations from independent reviewers who visited the schools, the Pueblo district, students and their families, and advocates who have been lobbying throughout the process.

If the board members take the same approach they did last year, they’re likely to let the schools continue with “innovation” status, with some additional external management. But some state board members have expressed frustration with the pace of change, and they have more drastic options available to them, including closure or turning low-performing schools into charters.

At least in the case of Risley, the recommendation to largely stay the course comes despite grave concerns about the school. The evaluators gave a damning report, rating its leadership “not effective” at implementing change or even having the capacity to benefit from the help of an external partner.

The evaluators described chaotic classrooms in which students slept at their desks or openly played on their phones. In classrooms in which teachers were able to engage students, too many of them were “doing the cognitive work” for the students rather than leading them in real learning, they said.

The school is using too many new programs at once without enough training for teachers, with the result that most of them were not being implemented as intended, the evaluators said, and there isn’t enough coordination. In one example, the school had adopted new reading and math curriculum designed for 90-minute blocks, but the school’s schedule only allows for 75-minute periods.

But closing the school or turning it over to a charter organization would be worse options, evaluators said.

Conversion to a charter school would be divisive and unlikely to better serve students, they said, and there aren’t any nearby schools that could absorb the students if Risley were to close. “There are no other viable options for students that would likely lead to better outcomes,” the evaluators wrote.

What’s more, they wrote, the school serves as an “anchor” to the community — a view that community members expressed in comments submitted to the state board. Parents described using the health clinic associated with the school or getting food from the food pantry, as well as the pride their children felt in their sports teams, which provide positive and structured activities after school.

“As a parent, I feel better after each time I volunteer,” one mother wrote. “My daughter is a cheerleader here and I enjoy going to all her games and support her school and represent red and black and showing bear pride. I am looking forward to my son attending here in years to come.”

In several letters, students said they were having to take so many tests as part of the turnaround process that they were bored and stressed out and did not want to come to school.

“If we’re testing every month, when the real test comes around, we get tired of it and guess or click through,” one eighth-grade student said. “They’re stressing us out, and we don’t really need them. I understand you guys need to see where we are, but this many tests are not helping any of us.”

The state review panel assessment of Heroes was more positive, even as evaluators noted ongoing problems and recommended an additional external partner to help manage the school, not just provide instructional support.

“The school needs more time to see the full benefits of participation in the Innovation Zone, but implementation thus far has proven effective,” they wrote. “Leadership is developing and beginning to create positive change.”

At Heroes, evaluators did not recommend conversion to a charter school in part because the school serves a high population of students with disabilities. The middle school is also part of a K-8 school with one principal, and disentangling the elementary and middle school would have financial implications for both.

In response to written questions from the State Board of Education, Pueblo district officials said converting both schools to charters would have a serious financial impact on the entire school system. The district, which already faces declining enrollment and operates on a four-day week while staring down a $785 million maintenance backlog for its aging buildings, would lose almost $5 million a year in state funding if Risley and Heroes students all went to charter schools. The school district would also lose one of its newer buildings if Risley converted to a charter.

The opposition to a charter conversion is about more than money. In a letter, Barb Clementi, vice president of the school board in Pueblo, pointed to the example of a struggling school that was turned into a magnet school. While it has a good rating, it now serves a student population that is almost entirely different, and the former students continue to struggle in their new schools. Converting Risley or Heroes to charters runs the same risk, she said.

Risley and Heroes are part of an innovation zone that provides schools more flexibility but also allows teachers and administrators to work together. While the state review panel said both schools need to take more advantage of the zone, other Pueblo schools have come off the state watchlist using the innovation approach.

“I urge you to consider the bigger picture of our entire Pueblo community and school system when making decisions,” Clementi wrote. “These two middle school have made progress and deserve the time and opportunity to continue their good work with perhaps additional partnership support.”

Suzanne Ethredge, president of the Pueblo Education Association, the teachers union, said both schools have suffered from a lack of consistent leadership and significant teacher turnover, an issue that evaluators noted as well. She said any plan to improve the schools needs to take seriously the issue not just of training teachers but keeping them.

Some teachers and parents have asked for the schools to be turned into “community schools,” though letters to the state board indicate this approach has some serious skeptics as well.

“There is a lot of buy-in and a lot of people are looking to this model as a way to engage authentically with our community and dig in and find those root causes that are holding students back,” said Robert Donovan, an eighth-grade social studies teacher at Risley and member of the Pueblo Education Coalition.

Community schools incorporate a wide range of services for students and their families, ranging from meals, health clinics, and laundry service to English classes and job training. These schools work to engage parents in their children’s education, and in their most ideal version, parents play a big role in shaping educational decisions.

Teachers unions have been strong advocates for community schools in response to persistent low test scores, including in Pueblo and Adams 14. They argue that community schools address the social and economic problems that make it hard for students to succeed at school. Research on the academic impact of this approach is mixed.

More than 97 percent of Risley students qualify for subsidized lunches, a measure of poverty, compared to 80 percent for the district as a whole. Nearly 80 percent of Heroes students are from low-income families.

“The concerns expressed by our community fall into several areas, including authentic parent and community engagement, culturally relevant curriculum, a focus on high-quality teaching and learning, positive discipline practices, and mental health supports, to name a few,” reads the online petition. “The most powerful voices speaking about what is needed were, in fact, students. Based on this engagement, a community schools model … is the best fit for what we need and want in Pueblo.”

At Wednesday’s hearing, district officials will lay out their plans in more detail — they declined to talk to us before the meeting — and face tough questions from state board members, who have until Thursday to render a decision on the two Pueblo schools and the Adams 14 district, which could face significant loss of control.

This week’s decisions will mark a test of how the state board will deal with struggling schools going forward. Pueblo City Schools and Adams 14 have both described a process for finding additional outside partners if that’s what the state board orders, but it’s not entirely clear what that will look like on the ground.

And then it will fall back to principals, teachers, parents, and students to do the work.