Who Is In Charge

All sides hustle to tell Lobato stories

The three parties in the Lobato v. State school finance lawsuit have been scrambling to tell their stories ahead of Monday’s start of the trial, which promises to be a wonkish five weeks of expert testimony on funding, achievement stats, research studies and other fine points.

Kathleen Gebhardt
Lobato case lawyer Kathleen Gebhardt is interviewed by a TV news crew.

Children’s Voices, the non-profit law firm representing most of the plaintiffs, closed the pretrial festivities Sunday morning with an event on the Capitol’s west steps, Colorado’s traditional site for rallies, protests and political announcement.

Defendant Gov. John Hickenlooper and his lawyer, Attorney General John Suthers, got the jump on those media outreach efforts Thursday with a news conference in the governor’s wood-paneled office.

Lawyers for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund went before the cameras Friday morning under the trees outside the Department of Education on East Colfax Avenue to tell their side of the story.

In between events, participants in the case made the rounds of newsrooms and meeting rooms to talk about the case.

The Children’s Voices event on Sunday featured a “human graph” of schoolchildren standing up and down the Capitol steps to illustrate school funding trends, using a long black ribbon to represent national per pupil spending over a several years and a red ribbon going down the steps to represent Colorado stats.

Capitol rally
Parent Theresa Wrangham (lower right) speaks while children hold ribbons illustratrating national (black) and Colorado (red) school spending trends.

Lawyer Kathleen Gebhardt, arguing the need for the suit, said, “The state continues to ask people to do more with less and less. … Our kids can’t wait.”

Theresa Wrangham, a Boulder Valley parent and plaintiff in the case, called the state’s school finance system “completely detached from the needs of children.”

Superintendents from the state’s largest district and one of its smallest also argued that Colorado schools need more financial support. Noting all the education reform legislation of recent years, Jeffco’s Cindy Stevenson said, “Now we’re asking the state to step up to the constitutional requirements” for thorough and uniform education.

George Welsh of the Center School District in the San Luis Valley said, “Our education finance system is broken.” He noted that in his community a $13,000-a-year paraprofessional position “is considered a good job.”

Children’s Voices has hired Mark Stevens, former communication director for CDE and for the Denver and Greeley districts, to coordinate media relations for the trial. The group has a website and is starting to post Tweets about the case.

Attorney General John Suthers and Gov. John Hickenlooper
Attorney General John Suthers and Gov. John Hickenlooper

On Thursday Hickenlooper and Suthers did their best to argue that a plaintiffs’ victory would lead to an unacceptable squeeze on the state budget and would decimate other state programs. “If we lost this decision the consequences would be devastating,” he said.

“But when I step back and look at the [budget] reality we face,” forced spending on education “is incorrect.”

Hickenlooper tried to show his sympathy for the plaintiffs, saying, “I feel very strongly in some ways as the plaintiffs do” and “I’m not fighting against more funding for education.”

Previewing an argument the state is expected to make in the courtroom, Suthers said increased spending doesn’t necessarily “advance the quality” of education.

Both men argued that it’s not the role of the courts to dictate school funding. “It’s up to the people and the legislature to decide what to do about it,” said Suthers.

The plaintiffs’ case centers on the question of whether the state’s current school funding system meets the state constitutional requirement for a “thorough and uniform” education system.

Suthers referred to the constitutional clause as “this 1876 phrase” and asked “What applicability does that have in 2011?”

The attorney general said, “Our job is to make her [Judge Sheila Rappaport] feel very uncomfortable” about the consequences of a ruling for the plaintiffs. “Either way it’s going back to the Colorado Supreme Court.

MALDEF news conference speakers
MALDEF lawyer David Hinojosa (at podium) speaks during a July 29, 2011, news conference. At left is Lobato case plaintiff Mirabel Payan and daughter Gracie. At right is lawyer Marisa Bono.

On Friday, MALDEF lawyer David Hinojosa made the argument that Colorado’s school funding system creates special problems for students who are low income and English language learners.

“All children can succeed if given sufficient educational opportunity,” he said, but schools are stretched too thin to ensure that outcome and are forced “to rob Pablo to pay Paul. … They shouldn’t have to make those tough choices.”

The MALDEF team is representing parents in four high-poverty districts – Greeley, Mapleton, Rocky Ford and Sheridan – and in its case will argue that the current system doesn’t provide enough funding for English language learners, the full range of at-risk students and preschoolers and also doesn’t provide enough facilities funding to ensure all children have safe and healthy schools.

As to Hickenlooper’s and Suthers’ fears, Hinojosa said, “The sky’s not going to fall” if the plaintiffs win their case.

Hinojosa appeared with lawyer Marisa Bono and Sheridan parent Maribel Payan, who read rapidly from a prepared statement in Spanish. Daughter Gracie, a seventh grader, spoke briefly in English but was clearly nervous about being in front of the cameras.

EdNews preview of the trial

public comment

Chicago sets community meetings on controversial school inventory report

Chicago Public Schools is hosting a dozen workshops for community members focused on a controversial report about local schools that offers an unprecedented window into the assets — and problems — in certain neighborhoods.

The district published report, called the Annual Regional Analysis, in September. It shows that, in many areas of the city, students are skipping out on nearby options, with less than half of district students attending their designated neighborhood schools.

The school district and Kids First, the school-choice group that helped compile the report, maintain that the analysis is meant to help guide investments and empower communities to engage in conversations about their needs.

The report divides the school district into 16 “planning regions” showing where schools are, what programs they offer, how they are performing, and how people choose among the options available.

The meetings will start with a presentation on the report. They will include small-group discussions to brainstorm how Chicago Schools can invest in and strengthen schools. The first workshop is scheduled for Wednesday at Collins Academy High School.

While the school district has touted the detailed report as a resource to aid planning and community engagement, several groups have criticized the document and questioned the district’s intent.  The document has sparked fears among supporters of neighborhood schools that the district might use it to propose more school closings, turnarounds, and charter schools.

The parents group Raise Your Hand, the neighborhood schools’ advocacy group Generation All, and the community organizing group Blocks Together penned a letter recently scrutinizing the report’s reliance on school ratings, which are based largely on attendance and test scores.

“Research has shown that test scores and attendance tell us more about the socioeconomic status of the students’ communities rather than the teaching and learning inside the school itself,” they wrote. Chalkbeat Chicago first reported about the analysis in August after obtaining a copy of it. Yet, the document has sparked fears among supporters of neighborhood schools that it could be used to propose more school closings, turnarounds, and charter schools.

Here’s a list of the 12 community workshops, all of which all begin at 6 p.m.:

West Side Region: Oct. 17, Collins Academy High School

Greater Lincoln Park Region: Oct. 18, Lincoln Park High School

Greater Calumet Region: Oct. 22, Corliss High School

South Side Region: Nov. 7, Lindblom High School

Greater Stony Island Region: Nov. 8, Chicago Vocational Career Academy

Far Southwest Region: Nov. 13, Morgan Park High School

Far Northwest Side Region: Nov. 14, Steinmetz High School

Greater Milwaukee Region: Nov. 15, Wells High School

Greater Stockyards Region: Nov. 19, Kelly High School

Pilsen/Little Village Region: Nov. 26, Benito Juarez Community Academy

Greater Midway Region: Dec. 6, Curie Metropolitan High School

North Lakefront Region : Dec. 11, Roger C. Sullivan High School

Asked and answered

Why Rahm Emanuel and his schools chief believe an elite curriculum can resuscitate neighborhood schools

PHOTO: Steve Hendershot/Chalkbeat
Mayor Rahm Emanuel at Fiske Elementary in Woodlawn

Chicago is doubling down on a big bet that the International Baccalaureate program can be boon to its struggling neighborhood schools. We asked Mayor Rahm Emanuel and schools chief Janice Jackson to explain their calculus in a recent joint interview. Here’s what they told Chalkbeat contributor Steve Hendershot. 

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length. 

Chalkbeat: Why does it make sense to you to expand IB’s presence in Chicago?   

Janice Jackson: We’ve made investments in IB schools for a number of reasons: first, believing that schools need high-quality academic programs and a curriculum aligned to that, in order to really raise the bar for students and make sure that they are being presented with grade-level appropriate materials.

But in the case of IB, it’s rigorous and grade-level appropriate, but also takes a global look, which we think is one of the things that students should be focused on.

When we look at our metrics, we’ve already seen a dramatic improvement in schools that have a wall-to-wall IB program [offering only IB and not other curriculum], and we’ve seen that outlined in a few different ways at the high school level. It has resulted in higher graduation rates at some of our neighborhood schools that have adopted wall-to-wall programs.

And more important, at the elementary level, we’ve seen an improvement in standardized test scores for students that have access to a full IB program. So there’s demonstrated success that we can point to.

But the thing that I personally appreciate as an educator is the training that comes along with that. The teachers become a part of a network of highly accomplished teachers and they receive this training that is world-class. And then our students right here in Chicago and our neighborhoods get the benefit of that.

Rahm Emanuel: There’s two things I would say. One, for the parent’s side, what we’re trying to do is create what I call IB neighborhoods. So if you want to go to the Lincoln Park neighborhood or the Back of the Yards neighborhood, you can now go there and have your children in an IB literally from first grade to 12th grade, and there’s a continuum, there are feeder schools. Rather than parents moving out to the suburbs, they have one of the most sought-after academic programs. We have more people trying to apply, both principals and parents, to get the IB.

Second, I want to echo something Janice said and then underline it — the teachers love it because it frees them up to be the educators that they chose to be. The students get a rigorous education and the teachers get liberated to be educators. So that’s why I think it works.

Chalkbeat: That’s something I heard from IB’s parent organization as well — freedom from teaching to the test.

Emanuel: Listen, there’s a number of teachers I talk to regularly, and they’ll tell you that the moment their school went IB, the creative juices, the creativity, the collective energy that happened. It’s not an accident. Parents are flocking to it, parents are seeking it and principals get it because it sparks something. And then obviously our students are the beneficiaries of that.

The University of Chicago study from 2012 indicated that IB’s great postsecondary outcomes don’t depend on whether students actually earn the IB Diploma. Still, Chicago lags there — in the year of the study only 20 percent of CPS students earned the IB Diploma compared with 70 percent nationwide. Is that a number you’re focused on improving?

Jackson: Definitely the IB Diploma is the North Star. But if we could just take a step back, the plan that the mayor announced a couple of weeks ago around creating these IB programs which includes feeder schools that would feed into our high school programs is our effort to better prepare kids for the rigor of the IB program at the high school level.

So in many of our schools, when we launched, we started with the Middle Years Program, but now more and more we’re seeing the need to start at the primary level. So we’re looking to expose students a lot earlier, believing that that will make the IB diploma program more accessible to them.

Emanuel: I know a family with twins where one child got accepted to one of the top selective-enrollment schools in the city and the other one did not, but got accepted to the IB. They’ve now graduated. And first, the IB was more rigorous than the selective-enrollment academically. And second, both twins went to the University of Wisconsin and in their freshman year, the IB child was cruising.

I don’t want to over-color this because they’re both succeeding, but the adjustment to college was harder for the child who came out of one of the top selective-enrollment schools. That only underscores what the original U of C study in 2012 told us.

I want to underscore one other piece of data. When we started this, the goal was to make the International Baccalaureate not a backup to the selective enrollment, but a competitive, qualitative choice. In the district’s GoCPS enrollment portal, almost a quarter of the kids that got into our best selective-enrollment schools — 23 percent pick IB or artistic schools.

It’s becoming a true qualitative choice and competitor to the selective-enrollment schools. I think that’s good for the city. It’s good for parents, it’s good for the students and it picks up everybody else’s game.

Jackson: Let me add one thing from the teacher’s perspective. As we traveled throughout the city to host roundtables with teachers, [we heard that] teachers don’t want to spend a bunch of time developing curriculum, spending their whole weekend pulling out assessments and lessons for the students.

With the IB program, a lot of that work has been done for them. It’s research-based and it has a history of success, so it gives them more time to spend assessing their kids, working directly with them and allowing for that freedom and creativity, and we know all kids thrive in that type of an environment.

Chalkbeat: Do you think IB’s teacher training and framework pay dividends beyond the IB classes themselves? I’ve heard the idea that there’s a noticeable effect schoolwide.

Jackson: Yeah, it is definitely one of the outcomes. Because if you start with the Middle Years Program, if the teacher is implementing it with fidelity, they’re going to start to push on those intermediate grades and those primary grades to make sure that the students are prepared. And so it’s one of those cases where we raise the bar and students rise to the occasion, and it starts to really push throughout the building.

The other piece that I would say you really see in a lot of our schools with IB programs is that [students] are focused on global thinking. That’s something that all of us want our children to be thinking about, but quite frankly, it’s not happening in every single school. In our IB schools, the kids talk about not only their coursework and the content, but they talk about their place in the world, which I think is one of the unique features of the IB curriculum.

Chalkbeat: This is an interesting moment for IB within CPS because just as you’ve introduced the idea that a child can study IB from pre-K through the Diploma Program, the mayor — an IB champion — announces he’s leaving office. How can a parent because sure that IB will still be available 10 years down the road when their child is ready for the Diploma Program?

Emanuel: Two things. One, parents want it. Principals, teachers want it. We have basically 10 to 11 percent of the kids in CPS in IB. That’s a built-in constituency. Look, somebody else will have their own interests, et cetera, but I don’t believe they’re going to walk back from this because you have a built-in constituency of principals, teachers and parents who want this.

You’re going to have a fight on your hands. There’s plenty of fights to go around when you’re mayor, and you’ve got to pick the ones you want. This is not one I would recommend because I know the parents that are invested in this — and the teachers and the principals. There’d be holy hell to pay if you try to mess with it. Yeah. That’s the cleanest way I could say. And I think I know something about politics.

Jackson: I wholeheartedly agree with and support this approach. As long as I’m there, I’m going to continue to push for expansion and make sure this vision around these IB cluster neighborhoods comes to fruition.

I really do think if you look at the maps that we put out a couple of weeks ago and where we have added programs under Mayor Emanuel’s tenure, you can really see not only the expansion of programs, but really equity in distribution. We have prioritized some of our neighborhoods that needed this programmatic investment and the schools are better off as a result of this.