CPS Watchdog Says School Fudged Dropout Numbers

CPS acknowledges errors, takes steps to count dropouts correctly
Curie High School is one of several high schools that falsely labeled dropouts as leaving for “homeschooling.” WBEZ/Becky Vevea
CPS acknowledges errors, takes steps to count dropouts correctly
Curie High School is one of several high schools that falsely labeled dropouts as leaving for “homeschooling.” WBEZ/Becky Vevea

CPS Watchdog Says School Fudged Dropout Numbers

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Officials at one Chicago public school falsified records to boost graduation rates over a seven year period, the school system’s inspector general confirmed in a report released Wednesday.

The school reclassified dropouts as homeschooled or transfers because dropouts are counted against graduation rates, CPS Inspector General Nick Schuler said in his annual report, which summarizes all investigations this fiscal year.

The report does not name the school but WBEZ has identified it as Curie Metropolitan High School on the Southwest Side. A former principal there told the inspector general’s office that he instructed staff to label students that stopped coming to class as being homeschooled. He told the inspector general that he was pressured by his supervisors “to come up with stuff” to raise school attendance. The inspector general alleges that records were falsified from at least 2007 to 2014. The former principal did not return a call for comment.

After WBEZ’s investigation, and prior to the inspector general’s report, CPS officials recalculated graduation rates. Curie’s 2014 graduation rate dropped from 81 percent to 69 percent. It is unclear whether homeschool students were counted as dropouts in the recalculated rates.

CPS spokeswoman Emily Bittner said in a statement that the district is working to correct issues outlined in Wednesday’s report.

“CPS has taken action and will continue to increase controls and improve accountability throughout the district, both in conjunction with these recommendations and proactively in numerous areas,” Bittner said.

Schuler said past CPS administrations might have been slow to investigate where schools were fudging numbers.

“I do believe the new administration is looking at this more carefully and more proactively,” Schuler told WBEZ.

The use of the homeschool code was one of several ways schools avoided acknowledging dropouts. WBEZ found schools were labeling students as out-of-district transfers when they actually went to GED programs or to CPS alternative schools.

The inspector general recommended that the homeschool code be reserved for district administrators only.

Other findings in the report:

  • Four high schools and one elementary school falsified student attendance records. Three principals cited are still working at charter schools despite a “do not hire” mark on their record. One is at a new school.
  • The report details for the second year in a row “the ongoing admissions fraud problem” at selective enrollment schools. The report pinpoints three specific cases in which families were allowed to commit this fraud late in the admissions process. Schuler said he is puzzled that the school district allowed these changes to be made without questioning.
  • Also, the report points to a lack of inventory controls for equipment bought for Career and Technical Education programs. The report notes that since 2013, CTE programs have bought more than $9.2 million worth of equipment. CPS is working to fix this problem, according to the report.
  • A high school could have raised “hundreds of thousands of dollars in rental income” had it properly managed its sports facilities.

The inspector general’s office only was able to look into 16 percent of the complaints it had received, noting limits of its small staff and budget. Mismanagement was the biggest complaint received, followed by residency issues.

The report does not mention two issues Schuler has talked about publicly. He has complained about what he sees as an overreach of the district’s beefed up Internal Audit Department. Under CPS CEO Forrest Claypool, the internal audit department’s budget has increased to more than $4 million, up from less than $1 million.

Schuler says that the auditors are obstructing his investigations. The inspector general is appointed by Mayor Rahm Emanuel and his office is supposed to be independent, whereas Claypool has control of the audit department.

Also, Schuler complained at the December board meeting that district officials were improperly claiming attorney-client privilege in an investigation into whether CPS had violated policy when it hired a law firm where Claypool and the district’s general counsel Ronald Marmer previously worked.

Sarah Karp is an education reporter for WBEZ. Follow her at @sskedreporter or @wbezeducation.