2000 News Briefs
January 10: Vallas/ISBE tiff
A dispute between Chicago schools CEO Paul Vallas and state education officials over when Chicago students should take state tests leads to a public standoff. State Schools Supt. Max McGee warns that CPS could stand to lose $16 million in federal poverty funds over the issue. State officials want CPS to administer the Illinois Standards Achievement Tests (ISAT) to 10th-graders in February, while Vallas prefers to hold off until May. Tension builds as Vallas insults McGee and State Board Chair Ronald Gidwitz in statements to reporters. Chicago Mayor Richard Daley intervenes, asking Vallas to refrain from personal attacks. By month's end, Chicago and state officials reach a compromise: Chicago students are to take the state tests in February 2000, and state officials agree to move next year's test dates back to spring.
January 12: Contract Controversy
The Chicago Tribune reports that Board of Education officials allowed a politically connected construction company to walk away from a $2.1 million contract without finishing the job. According to the Tribune story, the board paid G.F. Structures, a firm with close ties to Mayor Richard Daley, $513,000 for its initial work on the project, an addition to Earhart Elementary School, and then allowed the firm to submit a new bid on the remaining work. G.F. Structures got a $2.2 million contract to finish the job, bringing the total cost to $2.7 million. Officials defended their actions, claiming that upgrades were the reason for additional costs and delays.
February 17: Vallas blasts teacher
Paul Vallas touches off a controversy when he declares that Morgan Park High School teacher Christine Matishak should be fired after returning from a school trip to Spain without one of her students, who had lost his passport. (The teacher had arranged for supervision of the boy's separate return.) Both major Chicago papers publish editorials, columns and letters criticizing Vallas for being too harsh. Vallas receives further criticism in late February, when he cancels a Morgan Park trip to Vienna, citing Austrian "anti-foreigner hostility." Matishak's case is settled on March 10, whenthe board suspends her supervisor for two days without pay.
March 9: Northside debate
The Sun-Times touches off a debate within its own pages when it publishes a page-one story touting Northside College Prep as the city's top-scoring high school. A subsequent story and column raise the question of whether the school's rigorous admissions standards and extravagant resources represent a fair distribution of resources. "Magnet schools create a two-tier public educational system -- a private or exclusive school for high-scoring students, and a regular school for everyone else," writes columnist Mary Mitchell. "These schools are not only elitist, but they also give students who are excluded the impression that they are not entitled to the best." Chicago Mayor Richard Daley and schools CEO Paul Vallas respond with letters. "We're not trying to be elitist," writes Daley. "We're just saying poor children can be smart."
2/16/00: Metal detectors in grade school In the wake of the accidental shooting of an 11-year old at Ellington Elementary School, Chicago Public Schools CEO Paul Vallas urges the daily use of detectors in elementary schools and orders the purchase of 1,000 additional hand-held metal detectors
March 13: Principal ruling
In the first decision under a 1999 amendment to the School Reform Act, an arbitrator rules that the Finkl Local School Council acted legally when it voted not to renew the contract of the school's principal, Elizabeth Elizondo. Elizondo was the first principal to take advantage of the new law, which allows for third-party review of principal-contract decisions by LSCs.
March 16: Special education proposal
The Illinois State Board of Education votes to change the way special education teachers are trained and licensed, streamlining many special licensing categories into a single general license. Teacher unions and special-ed advocacy groups denounce the plan, claiming the move will only increase the already severe shortage of special education teachers and will place inadequately trained special education teachers into classrooms. The state legislature later directs ISBE to take no further action on the proposal until 2001. 23 New military school The Chicago Board of Education sets into motion a plan to transform Carver High School into the nation's second military public high school beginning the fall of 2000. The first is CPS's Bronzeville Military Academy.
April 6-7: LSC Elections
143,466 parents, teachers and community members select 5,214 new LSC members from among 7,288 candidates in the district's sixth local school council elections. Despite stepped-up private-sector efforts to recruit candidates, the number of parents, teachers and community members running for the seats increases only marginally from 1998.
April 15: Private school funds
Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan blames the state's two major teacher unions for the demise of a legislative plan to pump $12 million in state funds into private and parochial schools.
April 20: New capital funds
The Chicago Board of Education announces a plan to raise an additional $261 million to build and renovate aging schools. The board's plan includes borrowing $170 million against tax revenues expected when the Central Loop tax increment financing (TIF) district expires in 2006. Another $30 million for new improvements for high schools will be borrowed against lease income generated by the board's Clark Street headquarters building. 27 "C" on overcrowding relief The Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund issues a report giving the board an overall grade of "C" for its overcrowding relief efforts. At least 70 percent of the district's overcrowded elementary schools have yet to get any relief, according to the report.
May 5: School scores on-line
State education officials announce a plan to display Illinois schools' test scores on the Web, in a format that will allow users to compare a school's scores to those of comparable schools around the state.
May 16: High School test scores rise
Board of Education officials announce that 35.3 percent of 9th- and 11th-graders scored at or above national averages on the Tests of Achievement and Proficiency in reading, an increase of 2.8 percentage points from 1999; 45 percent scored at or above national averages in math, an increase of 3.1 points from 1999. The new Northside College Prep edges out Whiney Young Magnet as the top-scoring high school in the city.
May 18: Grades for parents
The Sun-Times reports that Schools CEO Paul Vallas wants to issue report cards to parents of roughly 100,000 of the district's youngest students. Through 3rd grade, parents would receive marks on a checklist filled out by teachers, counselors or administrators. The checklist would cover basic parenting responsibilities, such as whether children are in attendance and prepared for class.
June 6: ACT requirement
The Illinois State Board of Education votes to include the ACT college-entrance exam in a new statewide testing system. Starting in 2001, high school juniors will take the ACT as part of the Prairie State Achievement Examination, which will replace the Illinois Standards Achievement Tests in high school. ACT scores will be included on high school transcripts. The state will pay $30 per student for the ACT, making it the costliest test the state has ever given.
June 21: Small Schools report
Researchers from Bank Street College report that Chicago students who attend small schools, particularly high schools, achieve more academically and tend to misbehave less often. Their report, "Small Schools: Great Strides," examines the city's "small schools movement," which started in the early 1990s. A small school is defined as an elementary school with fewer than 350 pupils or a high school with fewer than 500 students. The city now has more than 200 such schools.
June 21: Sun-Times for Vallas for Governor
Sun-Times political columnist Steve Neal kicks off an occasional series of stories touting CEO Paul Vallas as a candidate in the 2002 gubernatorial race. "Paul Vallas is the Democratic Party's last best hope," Neal's column begins. In subsequent columns in the fall and winter, Neal cites Democratic leaders including House Speaker Michael Madigan and Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley as backers of a possible Vallas campaign. For months, Vallas insists he is not interested, but by early 2001, he stops issuing denials.
June 28: High school intervention
Board of Education officials announce plans to use sweeping powers for the first time in an attempt to upgrade six high schools with low test scores. Under state law, a process called "intervention" allows board officials to replace the principal, order new local school council elections and fire any school employee after an evaluation. The six schools initially slated for intervention are Bowen, Collins, DuSable, Juarez, Orr and South Shore; however, the board later decides not to use intervention at Juarez. Link to August web extra on Intervention.
July 14: Substance editor loses hearing
Hearing officer Michael Gerstein recommends that the Board of Education fire veteran teacher George Schmidt from his teaching position at Bowen High School. Schmidt published portions of the CASE (Chicago Academic Standards Exam) in the January 1999 issue of Substance, a teacher-produced newspaper that he edits; the hearing officer rejects Schmidt's arguments that he was performing a protected public service as a whistle- blower, exposing what Schmidt calls the "academic atrocity" of the board-mandated test. The board votes to fire Schmidt on August 23.
July 26: Intervention OK'd
The School Board approves the start of intervention, its latest attempt to shake up some of the city's poorest-performing high schools. At a board meeting today, the Academic Accountability Council recommends intervention at all 11 high schools with 15% or fewer students scoring at or above national norms. Due to limited resources, the board approved only five. Board President Gery Chico wants Juarez High School, which is not among the 11, to be included but pulls back after parents and staff from Juarez ask the board to reconsider.
August 22: Attendance lull, Payton opens, reading ramp-up
17,000 fewer kids show up for the first day of school than in 1999, with 103,000 absentees overall, making it the worst-attended opening day for six years. CEO Paul Vallas speculates that the early start date may be a factor. Mayor Daley, who had spearheaded a push for more parents to accompany kids to the opening day of school, disagrees, calling the low turnout unacceptable. Meanwhile, the board's newest showpiece college-prep high school, the $33 million Walter Payton College Preparatory High School opens. And 125 of the lowest-performing elementary schools start the year with an infusion of extra teachers and new board-mandated curricula and textbooks.
August 23: Promotion policy change
The school board raises the test-score cutoff for promotion to 9thgrade, but also creates more wiggle room. The new standard will require 8th-graders to test at the 50th percentile in math and reading on the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills; however, students just below the cut-score will be judged also on classroom grades, attendance, completed homework and good conduct. The U.S. Justice Department drops inquiries into whether the previous policy, which based promotions solely on test scores, was discriminatory against minority children.
August 27: Magnet study
A study by the Consortium on Chicago School Research finds that he policy of reserving magnet school slots for neighborhood children favors families in the wealthier sections of the city, which have the highest concentrations of magnet schools.
August 31: ACT, AP scores up
Board officials announce increases in the average score on the ACT college-entry exam and in the pass rate for the challenging Advanced Placement tests. The average ACT score rose from 17.3 to 17.5 on a 36-point scale, and the percentage of CPS students passing AP tests rose from 39.4 percent to 40.3. The modest gains are meaningful, officials say, because increased numbers of students are taking both sets of exams.
September 7: Study: scores hit plateau; 5-year plan announced
A study funded by the Brookings Institution finds that while test scores have risen for the past several years, gains in elementary reading scores have been flattening out and that not all schools have seen equal gains under reform. Study author G. Alfred Hess gives credit for improvements both to reforms under Mayor Daley's team and to efforts by local school councils in the early 1990s. Also today, school officials announce plans to offer next year's high-school freshmen the option of a five-year course of study, in which the normal, required freshman classes would be spread out over three or four semesters.
September 12: Fee-for-service pre-school
The Chicago Sun-Times breaks the news of the school board's plans to launch a fee-based pre-school program in February 2001. Parents will pay $5,800 for 48 weeks of service, a relative bargain. Board officials say they hope that the program will motivate middle-class parents to give Chicago's public school system a try. Some existing providers and other advocates complain that the price will not cover the program's costs; as a result, they fear that the board will end up subsidizing pre-school service for middle-class children, while needy children miss out on under-funded free programs.
September 19: "Grade-inflation" monitors
In a speech to the City Club, Mayor Daley announces plans to randomly audit students' classroom performance to guard against "grade inflation." CEO Paul Vallas explains that because classroom grades will now be counted in deciding whether to promote students to the next grade, the board has a new interest in ensuring that grades accurately reflect class performance.
November 15: Racial guidelines shift
Hoping to make it easier for principals to fill teaching vacancies, the School Board votes unanimously to loosen the guidelines for faculty integration. Under the old guidelines, faculties could be no more than 60 percent white and no more than 70 percent minority; the new guidelines allow faculties up to 70 percent white or 80 percent minority. The guidelines are the result of a 1980 desegregation consent decree between the board and the U.S. Department of Justice, which must approve any changes. The Justice Department does not indicate its position on the changes.
December 14: Early drop-off
Paul Vallas tells a City Council committee about plans to charge parents $15 a week to drop their children off early at school so that parents can get to work on time without leaving children unattended. Many schools are already open before class- time. At the same meeting, Vallas names the 13 schools that will be offering fee-for-service pre-school in February; most are in affluent or gentrifying areas.
December 20: Principal guidelines toughened
The board votes to raise the bar for prospective principals, increasing the amount of course work that candidates must complete and requiring them to submit to more complex screening procedures, including registering and interviewing with a public-private review board. Once hired, new principals will be required to participate in a new training program.
December 20: Three charters approved
The board votes to approve three new charter schools even though state law technically leaves room for only two more in the district. The schools are the Lawndale Educational and Regional Network Charter School, backed by former state comptroller Loleta Didrickson, among others; Passages, to be run by Asian Human Services in Uptown; and an arts charter proposed by the Chicago Children's Choir. One of the three will become an arm of an existing charter school.
December 26: Schools open over holidays
127 schools open for "holiday academic tutoring" programs, where students can get extra help over the two-week break. Principals, assistant principals and teachers are paid by the day to staff the supplemental academic program. Some 7,500 students attend the program, by the board's count.
December 30: Vallas passed over for Ed Dept.
Paul Vallas was considered, but not hired, for the job of United States Secretary of Education under George W. Bush, the Sun-Times reports. The job went to Roderick Paige, superintendent of schools in Houston, Tex.