Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news organization committed to covering one of America’s most important stories: the effort to improve schools for all children, especially those who have historically lacked access to a quality education.
With just a few weeks left in office, Gov. John Hickenlooper unveiled an educational blueprint for Colorado that he hopes his successor, governor-elect Jared Polis, will take to heart.
The proposals range from increasing teacher pay and making training opportunities more relevant to the classroom to forging partnerships between business and education. They urge policy makers to build on ideas that have already worked at the school or district level. They also suggest revamping the school finance formula, a challenging task that has eluded lawmakers so far.
The legislators who served on the Education Leadership Council that wrote “The State of Education” praised the final product and promised it wouldn’t languish on a shelf. State Sen. Nancy Todd, an Aurora Democrat and former teacher who will chair the Senate Education Committee, said she was committed to “put some legs on it.”
State Rep. Bob Rankin, a Republican from Carbondale who served as co-chair of the Education Leadership Council with Colorado Education Commissioner Katy Anthes, said that a common refrain during his years in the legislature has been that the state lacks a broad vision for education. That’s made it difficult to move forward on thorny questions.
“The State of Education” provides that vision, Rankin said, and can serve as an “anchor” for lawmakers drafting bills and district leaders looking for new ideas. It’s also a way to show the public how Colorado could be a national leader in education, starting in preschool and continuing all the way through retraining for workers changing careers, he said.
Anthes stressed that the report is not a new set of mandates for school districts and that the plan respects Colorado’s principle of local control.
“We recognize that local context matters,” the report summary reads. ”While the subcommittees came to consensus on the principle and strategies for their components of this plan, we know that not every improvement strategy is right for every community.”
Even as the plan lays out ways to prepare students for the jobs of tomorrow, it also highlights the state’s acute need for many of those students to choose careers in education. Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne, who was heavily involved in the project, noted that the “talent pipeline” for early childhood teachers in particular needs to be larger and that pay and opportunities for advancement will have to increase if more workers are to enter and stay in the profession.
The report calls for higher base compensation for teachers, for financial incentives like loan forgiveness and paid student teaching, and for evaluating and improving the working conditions in “hard-to-staff” schools.
It also calls for maintaining a high bar through teacher licensing and for alternative certification programs — used by many to enter teaching as a second career or after majoring in something other than education — to have equivalent standards.
At the same time, the report said the state should monitor licensure policies that may disproportionately discourage teachers of color as Colorado seeks to have a teacher workforce that looks more like the students it serves.
In contrast to earlier pushes for school improvement that focused on test-based accountability for schools and teachers, this report frequently mentions flexibility, collaboration, support, respect, and empowering educators.
The report calls for schools to provide a greater diversity of learning experiences for students, to be more flexible in where learning occurs, and to pay more attention to the challenges students face outside the classroom. It calls for deeper exploration of the community schools model, which involves greater collaboration between parents and teachers and a wide range of services not just for students but also for parents and younger siblings.
“The State of Education” was developed by the Educational Leadership Council, a bipartisan group of lawmakers, educators, business and community leaders, and heads of state agencies convened by Hickenlooper in 2017. Members used input from more than 6,000 people who took an online survey about their education priorities, some 500 people who attended more than 70 roundtable discussions, and 100 people who served on four subcommittees.
Lawmakers will be weighing these ideas without a major new revenue source after the failure of the Amendment 73 school tax increase. Polis campaigned on a platform that included funding full-day kindergarten and significantly expanding access to preschool, while some lawmakers have suggested special education needs more attention.
Rankin said the state budget has money for targeted programs — Hickenlooper’s proposed 2019-20 budget already includes $10 million to fund ideas developed by the Education Leadership Council — but he also stressed that districts and local communities don’t need to wait for the state to pursue the ideas in the report.
“There is significant money going into education even after the failure of Amendment 73,” said Rankin, who also serves on the Joint Budget Committee. “There’s always room for new initiatives, whether they happen out in rural Colorado or in Denver Public Schools. I think it’s going to be up the districts themselves within their budgets to take up some of these priorities.”
Members of the incoming Polis administration have been briefed on the plan, and Hickenlooper said he hopes the plan will prove useful. A spokesperson for Polis declined to comment on the report.
Hickenlooper said providing all students with a good education is essential to maintaining Colorado’s strong economy.
“We will not stay No. 1 if we do not invest in our kids,” he said.
More Denver high school students will qualify next month for passes to ride public buses to school, thanks to a lower youth fare being rolled out by the Regional Transportation District.
The money Denver Public Schools will save on RTD passes will allow the district to relax its eligibility criteria. Currently, students must live more than 3.5 miles from their high school to get a pass. As of January, students who live more than 2.5 miles from school will qualify.
The district estimates 1,700 additional high school students will get a free RTD pass. That will bring the total number of students who qualify to more than 4,400.
Denver Public Schools does not provide yellow bus service to most high school students, and there are reasons other than proximity that students might not qualify for an RTD pass.
The district does not provide RTD passes to all students who attend a school that is not their boundary school — that is, the school in their neighborhood to which they are assigned. Critics see that as a problem given that Denver Public Schools has a robust school choice process that encourages families to choose the school that’s right for them.
Matt Samelson of the Denver-based Donnell-Kay Foundation is among the advocates who have been pushing the district to expand transportation options for high school students. (Donnell-Kay is a financial supporter of Chalkbeat.) Samelson called the new 2.5-mile rule “a great first step.” Whereas Denver’s previous walk distance of 3.5 miles had been the highest in the state, the new rule brings the district in line with other metro-area school districts.
But Samelson said it “doesn’t chip away at the equity issue of who actually needs transportation.” To solve for that, district officials have laid out several next steps, including moving from a system where all eligible students get a bus pass to a system where students must opt in. That would free up more passes for other students in need.
“If there are students and families who would be eligible and aren’t going to use it, let’s give that pass to somebody who would use it,” Samelson said.
District officials said they hope to start the opt-in system next school year. If it succeeds, they envision piloting a further step: providing bus passes to students from low-income families who are using choice to go to a school outside their neighborhood.
To serve a growing number of middle school students in the family-focused northeast Denver neighborhood of Stapleton, district administrators have recommended opening a middle school replicating the popular Denver Green School.
The seven-member Denver school board is set to vote on the recommendation Thursday night. Should the board approve it as expected, a second location of Denver Green School would open next fall on a shared campus north of I-70 in the area of the neighborhood known as Northfield. The campus is already home to Inspire Elementary School.
Enrollment in Stapleton schools is expected to increase as new home construction brings more families to the area. The new middle school would start with sixth grade next year and add a grade each year. The district has requested the school eventually be able to serve as many as 600 students.
A committee of parents, community members, and district employees reviewed applications from three schools interested in filling the district’s need for a new middle school. Committee members said they chose Denver Green School because of its stellar academic track record; its success with serving a diverse student population, including students with disabilities; and the fact that the person who would be its principal is an experienced leader.
Denver Green School is rated “blue,” the highest district rating. The original Denver Green School is a K-8 but the Stapleton school would be solely a middle school.
High Tech Elementary School in Stapleton also applied to fill the need by adding middle school grades. The third applicant was Beacon Network Schools, which already has two middle schools in Denver.
All three applicants are district-run schools, not charter schools. Denver Green School is part of Denver Public Schools’ first “innovation zone.” Being in a zone gives Denver Green School more autonomy over its budget and operations than a regular district-run school has.
The new Denver Green School would be one of six middle schools that families who live in the Stapleton, Northfield, and Park Hill neighborhoods can choose from.
Thursday’s vote will bring to a close a process the district calls the “call for new quality schools.” Instead of simply building and operating new schools, Denver Public Schools puts out a request for proposals, inviting anyone with an idea for a new school to apply. The district then facilitates a competitive selection process. The school that’s chosen gets to open in a district building — a prize in a city where school real estate is at a premium.
In this case, some Stapleton parents were disappointed that the district’s most requested middle school, McAuliffe International, didn’t apply. McAuliffe already has one replication — McAuliffe Manual Middle School — and Principal Kurt Dennis said the timing was not right for another.
“We have several excellent leaders in our pipeline that would love to open a new school, but the timing didn't work for them in terms of where they are both in their careers and with their families,” Dennis wrote in an email to Chalkbeat. “If opportunities were to open up in the future, we would be interested, but not for the fall of 2019.”
Eighth grader Emma Pichardo, a student at M.S. 50 in Brooklyn, didn’t know what the Black Lives Matter movement really was until a teacher showed her a documentary about 17-year-old Trayvon Martin last year.
Six years ago, Floridian George Zimmerman fatally shot Martin, his neighbor, as the unarmed teenager was walking home. Zimmerman, who is white and was a neighborhood watch volunteer at the time, was widely thought to have racially profiled Martin.
The documentary was the backdrop to Emma’s decision to participate in a local T-shirt designing contest, open to all New York City students, for the national Black Lives Matter Week of Action. The event encourages teachers and students to engage with the 13 principles of the social justice movement born from incidents of black men and women having fatal encounters with white police officers.
Those 13 principles are diversity, restorative justice, globalism, queer affirming, unapologetically black, collective value, empathy, loving engagement, transgender affirming, black villages, black women, black families, and intergenerational.
The local contest is largely organized by city public school teachers, and the winning T-shirt design is sold online.
Emma’s design last year — a silhouette of a black woman, surrounded by bright splotches of colors and the words “Black Lives Matter — didn’t win. So she tried again this year, with a slightly different approach: an all black-and-white design with the same silhouette in the center, surrounded by the 13 principles.
Last week, local organizers cast the most votes for Emma’s design among a total eight submissions. It was notable that Emma won, said her art teacher, Brittany Kaiser, who provided feedback as Emma worked. Her teacher encourages students to enter these contests but has found with high-school participants, it’s tougher for middle-schoolers to come out on top.
Emma wanted the winning design — now on a T-shirt for sale online — “to show people that we should all have the same rights.” She hoped people would see it and find a positive outlet for their anger, sort of like she did.
The key part of the silhouette, she says, is its large afro.
“I want black women to see themselves for what they are and not what the social media shows them, because a lot of women are going through that phase that, like, they see women in social media and they want to be that type of person,” Emma said. “I want them to be themselves and be confident about their body shapes and their features and all that.”
Emma’s designs, according to Principal Benjamin Honoroff, are part of the school’s larger culture of connecting art to social justice. One example of that is an elective activist arts course that’s open to students.
Parents and staff have been supportive of the culture, Honoroff said. When the school’s Twitter account tweeted about Emma’s winning design, there were a few responses, almost all positive. But one user replied, “Shouldn’t we be teaching ALL LIVES MATTER?” — a reference to the slogan created in backlash to the Black Lives Matter movement.
Honoroff and Kaiser said they haven’t received any complaints about the contest.
“If I did, I would explain that most students are already aware of Black Lives Matter as a current event — it’s in the news, it’s a current event, it’s a social movement — and bringing issues of racial justice into the classroom acknowledges and affirms students identifies and also engages them in critical conversation about the world around them, and I think that engagement is always beneficial to students,” Kaiser said.
For Emma, the contest is one step down a career path she hopes to follow. She has auditioned for elite LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts and wants to make a career out of visual art — painting and sketching for now and maybe dabbling in photography.
“I want my art to have the power to change people’s mindsets,” Emma said.
The five officials from the Detroit school district spent more than an hour in late October touring Escuela Avancemos Academy, and as they asked questions about the dimensions of classrooms and the school’s ability to serve older students, alarm bells went off for Principal Sean Townsin.
Townsin concluded, based on the questions, that officials were looking to take back the building the school has leased since the days the district was controlled by emergency managers.
It’s an unsettling reality for some of the charter schools authorized by the district, whose charters or contracts to lease district-owned buildings — or both — are up for renewal at the end of this school year. If the district takes back their buildings, it would displace hundreds of students. At Escuela Avancemos alone, more than 300 students are enrolled.
The buildings are a legacy of state-appointed emergency managers who converted some schools to charters, then leased the buildings; or took old, shuttered buildings and leased them to charters. Both angered some Detroiters, who complained about taxpayer property being handed over to competing schools.
“Now that we have new leadership to rebuild the district, we need to review and maximize our property assets,” Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said in a statement, and reiterated in a later interview. “This means possibly reusing currently leased schools for new DPSCD schools.”
Townsin’s school still leases a building from the district, but has already found another authorizer, Central Michigan University.
“We have no idea what the district’s intentions are,” said Townsin.
District officials say a thorough review is underway, but no decisions have been made.
The possibility of using the buildings as traditional public schools again may seem odd in a district with plenty of underutilized schools — and more than a dozen vacant buildings. But the district also has a number of schools with massive facility problems and some with crowded classes.
Vitti said the district could use the buildings currently leased by charter schools to replace some of its older buildings that have high repair costs. Or, he said, the district could use the buildings to add a school in an area where a district school is struggling with crowded classes and “another traditional public school does not exist.”
He also noted that if the district doesn’t continue a charter school’s lease, the charter to operate could still be renewed. But the onus will be on the school to find a new location. That could be tough, given there are few school buildings available that aren’t in disrepair.
Since he took the reins of the district in 2017, Vitti has said he believes the district’s efforts should be focused on students enrolled in the district, not on authorizing charter schools. The district’s board of education has been deciding on a case-by-case basis whether to renew a charter school contract. And some charters have sought new authorizers.
Currently, the district authorizes 10 charter schools.
The head of a state charter association said he has advised charter leaders who might be affected by the district’s shift to have an alternate plan. He also hopes the district makes decisions sooner rather than later.
“Whether it’s a chartering decision or a facility decision, we want to make sure we’re giving people time for transition,” said Dan Quisenberry, president of the Michigan Association of Public School Academies. “We all know that not having appropriate time is disruptive and we all are trying to avoid doing things like that.”
Quisenberry said he understands why the district wants to focus on its own schools.
“I’m not in a position to make any judgments. The district is thinking about the students they’re serving. And the charter schools are thinking about the students they’re serving. If we all keep our focus on that, we’ll all end up in the right place, even with tough decisions.”
Vitti said the district’s standards will be high when making decisions about renewing a district’s charter.
“Ultimately, charter schools were initiated to be laboratories of reform … to initiate best practices and to improve achievement,” Vitti said. “It doesn’t make sense to authorize charters that are not outperforming the district average or doing better than our high-performing schools.”
Hamilton Academy is in danger of losing not only its authorizer but also its building. Both contracts are up for renewal in June.
“My hope is that DPSCD does keep it open,” Superintendent Jeff Hamlin said. “The neighborhood really does need a school. I’m not sure where they would go.”
Hamilton was part of the school district until 2011, when an emergency manager converted it and several other low-performing elementary schools into charter schools to cut costs. Hamlin has received no official word that the district isn’t renewing the school’s charter or lease. But “we’re looking for another building and another authorizer.”
Finding both could prove difficult. Hamlin said authorizers are often resistant to approving charters that don’t have a building, and banks are often hesitant to help charters finance buildings if the schools don’t have an authorizer.
Escuela Avancemos leaders, too, are searching for a new building.
“The options we’re looking at are designed to minimize any disruption,” said Townsin, whose school provides door-to-door transportation to a significant number of its students. It was one of the most improved schools academically this year.
He said the academy has reached out to inquire about purchasing its building, but was told the district isn’t selling any real estate right now.
“That is perplexing to me, considering their financial position,” and a $500 million price tag put on repairs needed to existing schools, Townsin said.
Vitti said the district isn’t looking to sell property for the same reasons it might not lease a building, because the district might reuse them.
LaMar Lemmons, a member of the Board of Education whose term expires at the end of the year, said the district should look to get out of leases with charter schools.
“If we’re getting out of the charter business, there is no way we should be sustaining our competition,” Lemmons siad.
Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb said "the stars are aligning" to create stricter rules and meaningful oversight of the state's low-performing virtual charter schools.
Holcomb said in an interview Tuesday with Chalkbeat that he expects lawmakers to act during next year’s legislative session on an array of proposals to improve virtual charter schools, which were recently approved by the state board of education.
Although he believes there’s a need for virtual schools, Holcomb said they shouldn’t be able to stay open if they fail to meet the state’s performance standards. “It’s not good enough to say ‘we’ve got an option for you’ ... There’s a recognition [of that] on my part, and on the state board’s part, and on the legislative leaders’ and members’ parts.”
But lawmakers were initially loathe to answer his call, declining last session to hear a handful of bills that, among other things, would have strengthened regulations for the groups that oversee charter schools, including those that monitor virtual charter schools. At the time, Holcomb said the state board could act within its own powers to make necessary changes.
A state board committee has met several times over the past year to craft regulations that aim to rein in the schools’ growth, ensure they have enough teachers, and make sure parents and students understand the ins and outs of virtual learning before enrolling. The latter policy has received praise from virtual school leaders, lawmakers, and Holcomb.
“It’s incumbent upon us to make sure that a parent understands what they are getting into,” Holcomb said. “You’ve got to have confidence that (virtual education) can work.”
It’s unclear if some of the more dramatic proposals, particularly ones that virtual schools and the companies that back some of them have opposed, will be successful. By far the most sweeping proposal the state board committee came up with was a plan to create a single statewide authorizer to oversee all online charter schools. That part of the plan saw heavy opposition from about half of board members and was ultimately taken out of the recommendations sent to lawmakers.
Some virtual schools have also been unhappy with recommendations that ask lawmakers to amend state law to prohibit school districts from overseeing statewide virtual charter schools, which is the setup for Indiana Virtual School and its sister school, Indiana Virtual Pathways Academy. The schools are overseen by the small rural Daleville public school district.
Other educators say that a proposal to lower funding for students within districts who learn entirely online further limits resources that schools have to support students and hire an appropriate number of teachers.
Overall, Holcomb said he is pleased with the recommendations. As the state board continues its work and plans come into sharper focus, the governor’s staff will stay involved.
“The state board did their job, what they were asked to do, and that is to lay out these guardrails,” Holcomb said. “Here’s the action steps that have to be taken to improve the system. We didn’t have that before.”
A federal recommendation that school districts no longer be encouraged to reduce suspensions cites an unusual tragedy in New York City as one justification.
In a report released Tuesday, the federal school safety commission recommends rescinding the Obama administration’s discipline guidance that aimed to reduce suspensions, specifically for students of color. U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is expected to follow that advice soon, handing a win to the conservative campaign to link school discipline reforms with unsafe schools.
That campaign has pointed to the September 2017 murder of a Bronx middle schooler as evidence that efforts to address racial disparities in discipline may have made America’s schools less safe. In that incident, Matthew McCree, a 15-year-old student at the Urban Assembly School for Wildlife Conservation, died after he was stabbed in a school classrom by a classmate whom he had reportedly bullied.
One footnote in the discipline section of the federal report cites a study by Max Eden, a fellow at the conservative Manhattan Institute, that concludes that changes in discipline policy in New York City between 2012 and 2016 caused school climate to deteriorate. Another cites Eden’s reported piece that contends that the stabbing happened because discipline in New York City’s schools had grown more lax.
“This change was in line with New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s campaign promise of putting city schools at the vanguard of a nationwide movement to unwind traditional discipline in favor of a new progressive, or restorative, approach,” Eden wrote in the story, which cites accounts from current and former teachers and students at the Bronx school.
The idea that less punitive discipline leads to less safe schools is not at all clear. While teachers in multiple districts have reported feeling hamstrung by new restrictions cutting back on suspensions, little research exists to make the case that their students have suffered — or to argue for alternatives such as restorative justice that the Obama-era guidelines urged, either.
Even less clear is how much difference changed federal guidance would make to New York City. Districts will be able to continue to pursue alternatives to suspension if they so choose. In continuing to promote alternatives to suspension, de Blasio could point to data showing that the city’s schools are largely safe. Under his administration, major and minor crimes have fallen, and the stabbing in the Bronx was the first murder in a city school in about two decades.
At the same time, the city has recently seen suspensions tick upward, even before the changed federal discipline guidance. Chancellor Richard Carranza last month attributed the new numbers to at least some misbehavior going unreported in the past. “Part of it is that people are actually now reporting everything, which I think is a good thing,” he said.
Yet even as Carranza appeared to give credence to some of the criticism of the Obama-era discipline guidelines, he emphasized another of the administration’s goals — ensuring that students of color are not punished excessively. In New York City, as in much of the country, black and Hispanic students receive a disproportionate share of suspensions.
“The data that was released is jarring,” Carranza added. “It should make every single New Yorker ask the question: What is going on? We’ve actually been asking that question. We’re working on a series of things that we’re going to do to address the disproportionality.”
With one in three Newark students considered chronically absent last year, a team of researchers has set out to discover why so many students are missing so much school.
To solve that riddle, the team has held focus groups and surveyed high school students at summer school programs, churches, and supermarkets. Many researchers have conducted similar studies, but this team is different — it includes students interviewing their peers about their shared struggles with attendance.
“We’re speaking in a language they understand,” said Manuel Mejia, a sophomore at Rutgers University-Newark who attended Newark’s Arts High School. “We’re not here to research them as a separate group — we’re doing it to help all of us.”
The research team includes students from Newark’s traditional, charter, and county-run high schools, alongside students from Rutgers University-Newark. They are part of a Rutgers-based program, called New-Ark Leaders of Health, where students aged 14 to 21 research public-health challenges and propose solutions.
Earlier this year, the 17-member team decided to focus on absenteeism. They considered it a matter of public health because of the dire consequences for chronically absent students, who tend to have lower grades and higher dropout rates, and are at greater risk of entering the criminal-justice system and facing poverty as an adult.
Newark suffers from unusually high rates of chronic absenteeism, which is defined as missing 10 percent or more of days in a school year — the equivalent of about a month of class. Unlike truancy, which refers to unexcused absences, this category includes anytime a student misses school — whether because of illness, a suspension, transportation difficulties, or other causes.
Last year, 33 percent of students were chronically absent. In the first three months of this school year, about 22 percent of students already are, with more likely to join them as attendance typically dips as the year wears on. And yet, because absences can accumulate gradually as students miss a few days one week then another day weeks later, many never realize the academic danger they’re in.
“I was basically chronically absent and I did not know,” said student-researcher Kutorkor Kotey, an 11th-grader at Bard High School Early College Newark, who said she missed several days one month. “Our main focus is to bring awareness to people.”
The research project was funded through a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to the Abbott Leadership Institute, a Rutgers-based group that provides leadership training to Newark families and students. The students who were selected to participate earn a small stipend.
Attendance in Nov. 2018 | Green = rarely absent | Yellow = frequently absent | Orange = chronically absent | Red = severely chronically absent | Credit: Newark Public Schools
In the spring, the team submitted a research plan to an institutional review board at Rutgers. After they tweaked a consent form to make it easier for high schoolers to read, the board approved it. By then it was summer, so the team targeted students in summer school and out in the community. They administered about 100 surveys and held two focus groups.
The student-researchers focused on high schoolers partly because those are their peers. But that is also the age also when chronic absenteeism spikes. Last year, nearly 40 percent of ninth-graders were chronically absent — a risk factor that greatly diminishes their odds of graduating on time.
To the average adult, that might sound like lots of students playing hooky. But the researchers knew from personal experience that many absent students would like to attend school — yet an array of obstacles often stand in their way.
“There's always this narrative that people from Newark are perceived to be, from an outside perspective, lazy, poor, drug-ridden, and that's why people are chronically absent,” said Simone Richardson, a Rutgers senior who helped lead the research team. “But what we've seen is that a lot of it is because of these oppressive structures.”
The researchers uncovered a heap of reasons why high schoolers miss school, from dentist appointments to unreliable city buses and concerns about gang violence on the path to school — or once they arrive. Often they are grappling with adult responsibilities, such as getting younger siblings to class or working after-school jobs, that make it hard to show up to school on time or at all.
One of the researchers, Eric Bellamy, who is in the 12th grade at Malcolm X Shabazz High School, described his own struggle to balance school and work. After classes end at 2:40, he rushes to a downtown seafood restaurant where he works as a cook and server from 3 to 9 o’clock, he said. It’s often 10 p.m. before he’s taken the bus home and can even think about homework.
As one of nine siblings, he said, he cannot rely on his mother to help pay for school-related expenses like a tuxedo and photos for prom.
“I’m not going to depend on my mom,” he said. “So I just have to thug it out and continue with the job.”
In some cases, schools themselves deter students from attending. Bellamy said school can sometimes feel like jail — “a cell that has more freedom,” as he put it. Other students mentioned strict uniform policies, unappetizing lunches, or ineffectual teachers that make them want to say away. Still others cited school policies that mark students absent after they have been late several times, and that block students with multiple absences from participating in extracurricular activities or even lead to suspensions, perversely adding to the days away.
“Schools don't really get down to why that student is late,” said Israel Alford, a Rutgers senior who coordinates the research project. “Rather, they jump to, ‘Hey, let's just punish this kid, maybe that will motivate them to come on time.’”
One of the main factors that the team heard time and again was mental health. Many students said they were coping with trauma or battling anxiety or depression. School guidance counselors are often overworked and under-qualified to address students’ mental-health needs, they said. Meanwhile, the schoolwork they must manage alongside their other responsibilities just adds to the stress.
Kayla Killiebrew, a 12th-grader at a charter high school run by North Star Academy, said she sometimes babysits her younger nephew on the weekends, which prevents her from completing her homework.
“Then I wake up in the morning stressed and I don't want to go to school,” she said, explaining that she dreads having to tell her teachers she didn’t do her work. “There's just so many factors in school that will add onto the stress I'm already having. So I'd rather just stay home and deal with it.”
The team is planning to conduct another round of surveys in high schools early next year, but first the group needs the district’s permission. They are hoping the new superintendent, Roger León, will sign off since he has said improving attendance will be cornerstone of his agenda.
Once the student researchers have finished gathering and analyzing their data, they intend to publish their findings along with policy recommendations. Their mission is to make sure that student voices inform any plan to improve attendance in Newark.
“Students know why they’re chronically absent,” Alford said. “The problem is that no one’s asking them.”
The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative’s education work has a new leader: Sandra Liu Huang, who has worked as the organization’s head of product and technology.
Huang now holds one of the most influential jobs in education: overseeing how CZI — which has already spent more than $300 million on education and is set to receive Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s fortune — tries to influence schools and classrooms.
Huang takes over for Jim Shelton, the former deputy education secretary under President Obama. Unlike Shelton, her background is in technology, and she ran product teams at Quora, Facebook, and Google before moving to CZI in 2017.
There, she oversaw the education team’s partnership with the Summit Learning platform, the personalized learning program that Facebook engineers helped build and is now supported by CZI. (The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative also supports Chalkbeat.)
“With her deep background in managing complex, interdisciplinary teams and building tools and products that help people learn, Sandra Liu Huang is the ideal leader to carry forward our vision for what’s possible in education,” Priscilla Chan, Chan Zuckerberg Initiative’s co-founder, said in a statement.
Huang’s appointment signals that CZI may be about to put even more of its focus into Summit, which CZI says is now used in 380 schools nationwide. Offered free to schools, Summit has emerged as a poster child for the personalized learning approach — and attracted some backlash from students and parents, too.
“Since my tours at Google and then at Facebook, I’ve essentially been on a pursuit to build the products and platforms that I see as inevitable — the Jetsons world is at hand,” Huang said in a 2015 interview with the website Brit + Co. “I’m inspired by how technology massively accelerates knowledge sharing, but I also think the web can be more than ways to pass time.”
Signaling that a smart education plan could make or break Chicago mayoral hopefuls, Illinois Comptroller Susana Mendoza seized her moment in front of an influential breakfast audience of Chicago business and civic leaders Tuesday to deliver a rescue plan for struggling neighborhood schools.
Mendoza’s 50 NEW Initiative — NEW stands for Neighborhood Education Works — would turn 50 underenrolled schools with empty classrooms into community hubs. Among the ways she described repurposing the schools: Using vacant space to house daycare centers, afterschool programming, English language sessions for adults, and evening job training sessions for parents that would double as free suppers for families.
“Instead of asking which 50 schools we should close next, I’ll be focused on which 50 of our underutilized schools we should be doubling down on, turning them into true community hubs and stronger academic centers,” said Mendoza, one of the most visible candidates in the mayoral race. She touted her record as a state legislator of supporting a free breakfast program for low-income schools. “I refuse to give up on our kids.”
Like other candidates who’ve connected the dots between schools, crime, and economic development, Mendoza’s urgency to release an education plan before unveiling a fiscal or economic development agenda is another sign of the prominence that public education will play in the heated contest.
With the power to appoint school board members, the mayor’s office possesses broad control over schools and education policy. In his first term, outgoing Mayor Rahm Emanuel closed 50 schools, a decision that still reverberates today.
Among the questions that some voters regard as litmus tests: Would you close underperforming schools? Do you support an elected school board? And, educators and others who follow education policy closely, might add: Would you keep or replace the current schools chief former principal Janice Jackson?
Mendoza is not the first candidate to release a detailed education plan. Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle — who already has secured the endorsement of the outspoken Chicago Teachers Union — and former Chicago schools superintendent Paul Vallas each have released detailed statements about how they’d improve schools and confront one of the district’s biggest problems: steep enrollment decline.
Candidates have also been pressed to declare where they stand on the issue of an elected school board, since Chicago doesn’t have one. There has been a growing grassroots call for an elected board, with the issue becoming a point of contention at a Chalkbeat Chicago-sponsored event last week.
Like Mendoza, Preckwinkle has said she supports an elected school board. Vallas has said he supports a hybrid board.
Even candidate Bill Daley — the younger brother of former Mayor Richard M. Daley, who pushed for Chicago to regain mayoral control in 1995 — has weighed in on the issue. Daley said late Monday that he supports a “hybrid” school board — that is, a mix of appointed and elected candidates.
At Mendoza’s appearance at the City Club of Chicago breakfast on Tuesday, she stressed her views as a parent of a Chicago Public Schools kindergartener, citing such experiences as the 3:15 p.m. school pickup time that does not align with the typical work schedule.
“How do parents do it in this city? Why is no one talking about this?” she asked, in one of several lines that received enthusiastic applause.
The club of civic and business leaders is typically an early stop for mayoral candidates, with most appearances scheduled even before candidates deliver enough petitions to land on the ballot.
As for how she’d pay for her 50 NEW plan, Mendoza hedged. Funding would come in part, she said, from state funding augmented last year.
However, acknowledging that state money would not be enough, she said she’d also ask philanthropies and businesses to support the plan, taking a page out of Emanuel’s playbook of announcing a sweeping city initiative and then raising private dollars to pay for it.
Here’s what we know so far about where the other candidates stand:
Toni Preckwinkle: The former alderman and president of the Cook County Board, citing such board failures as skipping pension payments and issuing no-bid contracts, has said she’d support a “fully elected” school board. Preckwinkle has said she would put an end to school closings and, like Mendoza, work with public and private partners to repurpose previously shuttered schools in ways that tackle other community needs like senior services. She would also invest more in nurses, social workers, counselors and support staff like teachers aides, and would halt charter school expansion until a new school board is elected.
Amara Enyia: The public policy consultant, lawyer and community organizer who has been endorsed by Chance the Rapper proposes prioritizing investments in neighborhood schools, bolstering district support for Local School Councils, and strengthening accountability for charter schools. Enyia’s also supports an elected school board, and she has said she would “expedite the process” for creating one in Chicago.
Lori Lightfoot: A staunch police reform advocate who made her name overseeing disciplinary cases as chairperson of the Chicago Police Board, Lightfoot supports creating an elected school board and has said she would expand high school apprenticeship programs and oppose opening new charter schools.
Paul Vallas: One of the earliest candidates to enter the race, the former Chicago schools chief and city budget director proposes “a hybrid elected and appointed school board,” with nine members, four elected by the community, and five appointed by the mayor, including the chairperson. Vallas promised one of his appointees would be “selected by the disability community,” and the other recommended by the teachers union. His plan for improving the school district centers on improving the district’s long-term financial planning and boosting programs such as advanced placement, dual college credit, vocational and International Baccalaureate at neighborhood schools, which have been losing enrollment.
Bill Daley: Daley proposes a seven-member school board with four members, including the board president, appointed by the mayor. Three board members would be recommended by Local School Councils. Daley, like at least two other candidates, describes this approach as a “hybrid” elected school board, although it’s unclear how much power voters would have under his model. Daley's campaign website said he would halt opening new schools given the district's enrollment crisis, and "cut CPS bureaucracy" with savings allocated toward school-level investments in teachers, counselors and technology.
Gery Chico: The former chief of the state school board proposes “a hybrid elected-appointed school board,” where the majority of members would be appointed by the mayor, “so that the mayor is held accountable for the educational outcomes of the district throughout the city." Chico, a lawyer by trade, was appointed as president of the school board by then-Mayor Daley in 1995, after the state legislature handed control of the board to the mayor's office.