Plato and other charter schools up for contract renewal

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The Chicago Public Schools is planning a rigorous review of Plato Learning Academy Elementary School and will determine whether to renew the contract of the independently run institution when its contract expires this summer.

The Austin neighborhood school is among 32 other charter and contract schools citywide that will go through the same renewal process leading up to its June 30 expiration date.

In general, charters receive a five-year contract, according to CPS.

CPS will look at various factors, including test scores from the ISATPSAE and ACT. School officials will also consider compliance data, financial management history and parental input.

“Charter schools that do not meet the terms of their contract are subject to non-renewal,” said CPS spokeswoman Kalyn Belsha in an email.

CPS will make recommendations on those contracts to the Chicago Board of Education, and the board is expected to consider them in the next month or so, wrote Belsha.

A review of CPS data shows that Plato has a better accountability rating than over a dozen of the charter schools up for renewal.

Plato earned a 59 percent score on CPS’ performance policy, a rating schools get based on points earned through many areas of performance and progress.

Plato’s rating, however, was far from the 90.5 percent rating earned by the South Side UNO 51st and Homan Charter Elementary School, the highest-performing charter school on the renewal list.

Plato outperformed Austin’s other neighborhood charter schools, Catalyst Circle Rock  (45.2 percent), 5608 W. Washington Blvd., and nearby KIPP Ascend Academy Charter (57.1 percent), 1616 S. Avers Ave.

ACT Charter, which began sharing schools with Henry H. Nash Elementary at 4837 W. Erie St. last year, did not generate enough data for a rating, according to CPS.

Catalyst Circle Rock and ACT Charter, however, are not among the schools up for renewal as their contracts with CPS expire on June 30, 2015, and June 30, 2017, respectively.

The possible closures of charter schools is just the latest in the ongoing debate of whether charter and contract schools, which have been expanded in recent years, are more effective in educating students. CPS data show mixed results.

The expansion also comes at a time when CPS is considering closing schools that are being underutilized, some schools of which are in neighborhoods where new charters are being built in, causing some parents and advocacy groups to cry foul.

“Just leave everything as is and let’s just focus on creating great schools,” said Dwayne Truss, board member of Raise Your Hand, an advocacy group for quality education.

Truss said he does not want to see an expansion of charter schools, especially when current charter schools are struggling with academic performance, and in some cases are doing worse than neighboring schools whose utilization numbers have made them a possible target for closure.

“If [CPS is going] to put neighborhood schools on the table, then maybe they should close under-performing charter schools,” he said.

CPS spokeswoman Belsha said that is what CPS is doing through the charter renewal process.

“We are rigorously reviewing charters and addressing those that are under-performing,” she wrote. “Our efforts to address our utilization crisis in our neighborhood schools is a completely separate issue.”

Parents continue to demand high-quality school options in their communities, and CPS is working to identify additional high-quality options throughout the city, Belsha added.

As recently as last year, under-performing charter schools have had the term limit of their renewal contracts reduced below the standard five years.

Last year, Ace Tech Charter High School in the Washington Park neighborhood had its renewal term limited to one year because of its “chronic” low performance.

“This one-year renewal will allow the district to closely monitor student performance through the coming year and re-evaluate the need for further action to ensure these students have access to a high quality education,” according to a CPS press release at the time.

When it comes to neighborhood schools in Austin, Plato has a better performance policy rating than more than half of them, but it was outperformed by Leland (93.3 percent), George Rogers Clark (73.8 percent), Ellington (71.4 percent), Lovett (66.7 percent), Nash (64.3 percent), Howe (64.3 percent) and Louis Armstrong (61.9 percent). The worst performer was Leslie Lewis at 19 percent.

Catalyst Circle Rock, on the other hand, has among the worst performance policy rating in the Austin neighborhood. At 45.2 percent, the school ties with May (45.2 percent) and is ahead of McNair (42.9 percent), Hay (38.1 percent) and Leslie Lewis (19 percent).

The performance policy rating determines whether a school gets a Level 1, 2 or 3 status.

Elementary schools with at least a 71 percent rating and high schools with at least a 66.7 percent rating get an excellent standing rating (or Level 1 status), while elementary schools having between a 50 percent  and 70.9 percent rating and high schools between a 44 percent and 66 percent get a good standing rating (or Level 2 status).

Anything lower than that is considered a Level 3 school (low academic standing) and is placed on probation.

Schools must become a Level 1 or Level 2 school for two consecutive years to get out of probation.

Charter schools, though, are not put on probation because they are evaluated by the terms of their agreement, according to CPS.

Plato, a contract school, is a Level 2 school and is not on probation. Catalyst Circle Rock Charter High School is a Level 3 school.

While the performance of charter schools among neighborhood schools is mixed, meeting performance standards should be the primary concern of the 32 charter schools up for renewal, said Sarah Karp, deputy editor of Catalyst Chicago, an independent news magazine that reports on urban education.

“That’s the biggest thing they’re going to be judged on,” she said.

Karp also said parents who are considering a charter school for their child should look at the academic performances of the neighborhood schools and not assume that because they look better, based on the resources they have that others schools don’t, that they are, in fact, better.

A review of CPS budget data showed that both Plato and Catalyst Circle Rock, no relation to Catalyst Chicago, had the highest budget dollar increase of all of the schools in the Austin neighborhood for the 2012-2013 school year.

“The whole point of every charter school is to provide high quality options,” Karp added. “The whole point, according to CPS, of closing schools is to have less empty buildings.”

According to recently updated utilization data by the CPS for the 2012-2013 school year, Plato and Catalyst Circle Rock are just two of the five elementary schools in Austin that are efficiently utilized. The other schools are Howe, Hay and Leland.

Critics, though, have argued the formula that CPS uses to determine utilization is flawed.

Raise Your Hand analysis, “Apples to Apples,” found CPS overstates the ideal classroom size for individual schools, calling into question the CPS’ formula for determining utilization numbers.

While CPS uses 30 as the ideal number of students per classroom, the advocacy group’s study said that number is higher than the recommended maximum students per classroom of 25.

Using their formula of 25 students, the study found only 38 percent of CPS schools were underutilized as opposed to the 50 percent CPS reported, and that 31 percent of schools were overcrowded versus the 14 percent reported.

“This astonishing illustration shows that not only are the utilization numbers incorrect, but based on the current formula, CPS could feasibly close some of its best schools if it does not take school performance, physical capacities or community stabilization into consideration,” said Jeanne Marie Olson, lead investigator of Apples to Apples in a press release.

CPS chief Barbara Byrd-Bennett wrote in a Jan. 8 letter to Raise Your Hand that CPS does not agree that the homeroom multiplier should be changed from 30 to 25.

CPS also said it’s holding community meetings to gain “more granular information about their individual schools that our own data may not have captured,” AustinTalks reported earlier this month.

Read AustinTalks’ “More than a dozen Austin schools underutilized, CPS data show.”

The first community meeting in the Austin-North Lawndale Network is Jan. 31 from 7 to 9 p.m. at Friendship Baptist Church, 5200 W. Jackson Blvd. The second meeting is Feb. 13 from 7 to 9 p.m. at Greater Galilee Baptist Church, 1308 S. Independence Blvd.

Ellyn Fortino contributed

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