Same diploma, different school

Same diploma, different school
Courtesy of Michelle Kanar
Same diploma, different school
Courtesy of Michelle Kanar

Same diploma, different school

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Updated Friday, February 20

One of the biggest success stories out of Chicago Public Schools in the last decade is the skyrocketing graduation rate.

Facing re-election, Mayor Rahm Emanuel is promising to take it even higher in the next four years—from 70 percent to 85 percent.

To get there, Emanuel and CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett are contracting with for-profit companies to give teenagers a new way to earn their high school diploma in a fraction of the time.

In 2011, the district commissioned an outside group to do an analysis and found Chicago had 56,000 out-of-school youth. Jennifer Vidis, CPS’s chief of alternative schools, says at the time, the district had 5,000 spots for them.

“We looked at this massive gap and we needed to do something to fill it,” she says.

So, in the last two years, the district conducted the largest expansion of alternative schools in Chicago’s history.Two years ago, Chicago had 30 small alternative schools, and today, there are 50. 

A WBEZ and Catalyst Chicago analysis of that expansion has found that the district is on a troubling path toward its goal to re-enroll dropouts as it turns to new, largely unproven, mostly online alternative schools to educate more students.

A WBEZ and Catalyst Chicago investigation also found:

  • At many of the new schools, students are able to complete courses in a matter of weeks. A 17-year-old boy told reporters he finished the equivalent of a semester’s worth of work in three days.
  • Many of the for-profit alternative schools offer half-day sessions, with students fulfilling the state requirement that they receive 300 minutes of instruction by promising to do homework.
  • Most of the work is done online, with only a few hours of classroom discussion each week.
  • Graduates are awarded diplomas from either the last school they attended or the neighborhood high school near where they live. They are also allowed to participate in sports and attend dances at traditional schools.
  • Budget documents, obtained through several Freedom of Information Requests, are contradictory and filled with questionable expenses. One operator budgeted more than $400,000 per 200 students for educational materials, then purchased the materials from themselves.

Experts warn the well-intentioned push is lowering the bar for certain students and making a second chance more appealing than the first. CPS is also laying the groundwork for more students to receive what some contend is a lower-quality diploma.

It goes against yet another promise of the mayor: that a CPS diploma will mean something.

“[Parents] will know that a degree from Clemente, South Shore, Back of the Yards, Taft, Westinghouse, Sarah Goode, Rickover means their children will have the education to succeed in college, career or life,” Emanuel said in a January speech announcing his second-term education agenda.

Jack Wuest, executive director of the Alternative Schools Network and a longtime advocate for helping dropouts, shakes his head and says he is worried that these schools are the “McDonalds” of education. The principal of one such options school doesn’t go quite that far, though he did compare the schools to “instant oatmeal” and called them “a sign of the times.”

“Just because it is instant oatmeal doesn’t necessarily make it worse,” he says.

The schools were approved with so little public debate, few people— experts on Chicago’s education system to high school principals who may send students to them—do not know much about how the new schools function.

This is the first of three stories co-reported with Catalyst Chicago. Catalyst’s initial story can be read here.  

A diploma on Division Street

Every weekday around 8 a.m., the #70 and #49 CTA buses carry hundreds of teenagers to the intersection of Division and Western on Chicago’s West Side.  

Clemente High School dominates two corners, a bridge over Division connects the school’s buildings. In order to earn a diploma from this neighborhood school, CPS requires 24 credits total: 4 years of English, 3 years of math, 3 years of science, 3 years of history, 2 years of P.E., 2 years of a foreign language, a credit of career education, and 3 electives. Students also must complete 40 hours of service learning and sit for a state-mandated test.

If kids stays on track, it’ll take four years. No more. No less.

Or, students can now walk a half block the other way on Division, and enroll at Magic Johnson Bridgescape Academy in a non-descript building with a sign in front that still reads: Coming soon, Magic Johnson Bridgescape.

Ursula Ricketts, the school’s program director, showed us around the storefront school this past October.

There’s one computer lab, two classrooms, and a handful of offices in the back. It looks more like a tech startup than a high school, with hardwood floors, high ceilings and exposed brick throughout. Here, students work at their own pace on computers and can earn high school credits in a matter of weeks.

“It’s like four hours, I don’t have to be here 8 hours, listening to teachers that don’t even want to teach sometimes,” says Estefany Herrera, a student at Magic Johnson Bridgescape. “I like it better here. I have earned like 4 credits already.”

A soft-spoken 19-year-old, Herrera says she dropped out of North-Grand High School after her friends turned on her and convinced others to tease her. They even tried to fight her.

“I didn’t want to tell anybody because usually when you tell a teacher, everything gets worse,” she says. One day she just stopped going to school. The days dragged on, and she spent her time helping to care for nieces and nephews. A year and a half went by. “It was depressing,” she recalls.

Herrera found her way to Magic Johnson Bridgescape Academy after someone from CPS called her and encouraged her to re-enroll. She visited one of the district’s Student Outreach and Re-enrollment centers and got back to school shortly thereafter.

Bridgescape Academy runs two sessions a day, from 7:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. and from 12 p.m. to 4 p.m. Herrera comes to the Humboldt Park campus for the morning, but she says it’s flexible. “Last week I didn’t come. I just did the work at home.”

Magic Johnson Bridgescape Academy is a joint venture between NBA-star-turned-businessman Earvin ‘Magic’ Johnson and EdisonLearning. They’ve opened five of these fast-track schools in Chicago in the past two years. The three other new providers are Pathways, Ombudsman and Camelot.

Camelot is an outlier. They run full-day programs and students do little work online. They also run the district’s Safe Schools, which are reserved for students who are transferred for disciplinary reasons, expelled or facing expulsion.

Like Bridgescape, Ombudsman and Pathways also offer two sessions of half-day programs in which students mostly work independently, either in workbooks or online, with some small group sessions.

Students move through the work in record time. Estefany Herrera said she’s completed nine credits so far this year. Typically, students earn six credits in an entire traditional school year.

A diploma from the school she left

And when Herrera graduates in June, she’ll not only count in the district’s graduation rate, she’ll count at her home school, North Grand. That’s been happening since the 2007-2008 school year, when CPS started including alternative schools in the graduation rate.

But here’s what makes the new for-profit schools different: Herrera’s diploma will say North Grand High School. It won’t say Magic Johnson Bridgescape Academy of Humboldt Park. No one has to know she graduated from an alternative school.

Herrera had no idea. But her classmate, Kyle Johnson, did.

“It’s way better,” Johnson, who would have been a senior this year at Urban Prep—a high performing charter school. “It’s way better. Because at Urban Prep, the college acceptance rate is 100 percent, so that’ll look good if I’m trying to apply for college.”

That’s frustrating for Matthew Rodriguez, the principal of Dr. Pedro Albizu Campos Puerto Rican High School, a 40-year-old alternative school, down the street from Bridgescape.

“Yeah, I mean, I feel like that’s, what’s the word, um, inaccurate,” he said.

Rodriguez says schools like his take a more holistic approach, with requirements such as an intensive senior project that gets students to reflect on what they’ve learned. The school also has a number of social workers and counselors to make sure that students’ well-being is addressed.

Not far away on Division, Clemente Principal Marcey Sorenson is implementing a rigorous International Baccalaureate curriculum. She, like Rodriguez, had no idea that students could earn a diploma that says Clemente, from a totally different school, until WBEZ and Catalyst told her.

“No… I would be interested in learning more about that. I didn’t know that,” Sorenson responded. “And that’s not to say that their diploma doesn’t mean anything. I don’t want to make the assumption that because it’s from Bridgescape, it means less. I just want to then, ensure that it means, what we think it means.”

Other principals not only know about this perk, they’re using it to help their graduation rates.

“The way that I perceive it and why I think it’s so important for me to know how they’re doing at that school is that I know they’re getting closer to graduation and that affects my graduation rate,” said Sullivan High School Principal Chad Addams. “They stay here, they dig in a hole, get themselves in more trouble and then drop out.”

Addams and Sorenson say they both want to get to a point where they won’t have any students off-track, when there’s no need to refer students to alternative schools.

But until then, they can’t just ignore the problem.

“I’ve been around enough gang members and enough high poverty children to know that that diploma is a golden ticket,” Addams said.

The price tag for doubling the number of for-profit, half-day, mostly online schools, like Magic Johnson Bridgescape is so far hovering around $50 million dollars.

Dropout factories to ‘credit mills’?

Herrera walked us through a Spanish 2 lesson last Friday. The online classes, called eCourses, are developed and sold by EdisonLearning, which also operates the school.

The lesson took less than five minutes. Herrera flipped through the slides explaining the lesson on conjugating –er and –ir verbs and immediately took a five-question quiz on what she’s just read. She gets 100 percent and moves on.

There’s a range, but each class contains between 80 to 160 lessons. Once Herrera completes the lessons, she will take a final that includes a multiple-choice test and three short essays. Every student has to take the final exam repeatedly until earning a score of more than an 80 percent, thus ensuring that all students pass every class.

As a native speaker, Spanish is easy for her. Geometry, on the other hand, is not.

“It took three weeks,” Herrera said.

CPS and officials at the new schools emphasize that they do offer small-group instruction, and they all maintain that the curriculum is aligned with the state’s Common Core standards. (The schools are accredited.)

When WBEZ and Catalyst started asking questions about the new schools, district officials did something strange. They stopped calling them schools and started calling them programs. They emphasized the programs are a complement to traditional schools, and are not meant to compete with them.

But several of the schools spend heavily on advertising. The selling point to students is speed and getting a diploma in record time. Pathways’ website reads: “Graduate High School Faster, Free Programs & Classes, Flexible Scheduling. Get Ahead!” Its URL?

Sonja Santelises is head of policy for the Washington D.C.-based Education Trust and a former Chief Academic Officer for Baltimore Public Schools. She cautions that many an online curriculum is often not all it’s cracked up to be.

“I have been in classrooms that in the name of giving kids other options, kids are just getting electronic worksheets,” Santelises says.

She says there’s a reason a high school diploma is necessary today.

“It takes work and it is not just about saying, ‘Oh we have all these poor young people who aren’t going to graduate so let’s just get them something so they get the credit,’” Santelises says. “That is not helping anyone. Because we have all these young people that graduate and come back and say I learned nothing.”  

The for-profit, half-day schools may be a new thing for Chicago, but other states have had similar programs for years. There’s little research on how successful they are with students. CPS is one of the few districts to design a rating system for them, and the early results don’t bode well for the new operators: 80 percent of the recently opened options schools had below-average ratings, compared to only 21 percent of long-standing alternative schools.

CPS’s Vidis says the district is looking at the performance results of the new schools very carefully. Those that don’t meet quality standards will not be allowed to expand and will be closed down.

“We want to make sure that students who are working through the online courses are actually being challenged,” Vidis says. “That the courses are rigorous and that we aren’t just running credit mills. That is not our interest.”’

This story was updated to reflect that Ursula Ricketts is the program director at Magic Johnson Bridgescape Academy in Humboldt Park.