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Taking It to the Next Level With CPS and AUSL

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Did I miss a recent press conference at Chicago's Collins Academy? You know, the shindig where Mayor Rahm Emanuel and CPS CEO Jean-Claude Brizard announced that Collins, as of November 2011, was no longer on academic probation.

Did I sleep through their slickly produced slideshow highlighting the spike in test scores that got Collins removed from the CPS probation watchlist?

I didn't think so.

But I do remember back in 2006, when Arne Duncan announced that he was closing Collins because of bad test scores and declining enrollment. I also remember that Duncan then handed Collins over to his well-connected pals at the Academy for Urban School Leadership and asked them to reopen the school in 2007 as a "turnaround."

That's when the money started to roll in. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation quickly ponied up $1 million to the heavy-hitters at AUSL for the Collins turnaround effort. That same foundation kicked in an additional $10.3 million for AUSL in 2008, and a chunk of that cash was used for teacher training at Collins.

Let's fast forward to June 2011.

That's when Emanuel was asked to give a commencement address to AUSL's first graduating class of Collins seniors. It was no surprise that he signed on, because if there's one education group in town that's long been wired directly into City Hall, it's AUSL. In fact, Emanuel made it a point to increase AUSL's clout on the Fifth Floor during his first weeks on the job.

He did that by tapping AUSL's former chairman, David Vitale, to become president of the Chicago Board of Education. The new mayor also recruited Vitale's AUSL colleague Tim Cawley (who commutes daily from Winnetka) to serve as CPS's Chief Administrative Officer. Before joining CPS, Cawley spent three years as a managing director of AUSL.

So Emanuel was happy to speak to the newly minted Collins graduates, and the local media dutifully told the story of what Emanuel described as a successful turnaround school.

Some in the press focused on the claim that every Collins senior had graduated and all were heading to college. And then there was the ABC-7 anchorman who went so far as to call Collins one of Chicago's "exceptional public schools." With just that statement, he forever flagged himself as a suburbanite.

Of course, no one in the press corps or the mayor's office ever mentioned that CPS -- as of the date of the mayor's speech -- still classified Collins as an under-performing "Level 3" school that was on "academic probation."

Nor did anyone mention that a higher percentage of Collins students was meeting state reading standards back in 2006, when Duncan shuttered the place, than in June 2011, when Emanuel posed for pictures at the school.

Instead, the reporters played ball and stuck to prefabricated talking points: 100% of the senior class was graduating, and all (or nearly all) of the kids were headed to college.

Nobody mentioned that the 88 graduating Collins seniors represented only two-thirds of the kids who had started together as freshmen back in the fall of 2007. Nobody asked what had happened to the rest of those kids.

No one with press credentials thought to say: "Mr. Mayor, if one-third of that September 2007 freshman class failed to walk across the Collins stage with a diploma in June 2011, can you really say Collins is a successful turnaround?"

But the flurry of feel-good stories that day couldn't change one critical fact: AUSL's Collins Academy was still on probation as a "Level 3" school.

And if you're a Chicago teacher working in one of the many non-AUSL public schools that CPS has classified as "Level 3," you know enough to keep your resume current.

You do that because you know that your head may soon be on the chopping block. As Brizard explained in CPS's recently released Guidelines for School Actions: "When a school receives the lowest performance level (Level 3) on the Performance Policy for two consecutive years, the school may be subject to a school action."

By "school action," Brizard means one of those annual rites of winter that typically involves firing every employee at a school, moving kids to a different school, or handing off management of a school (which also results in mass firings) to connected cronies, like the favored sons at AUSL.

Of course, it might get politically tricky to continue handing off schools to AUSL if AUSL's own schools are on probation and are themselves subject to "school actions" -- particularly if the new mayor just declared one of those schools to be a successful turnaround.

And that's why the whole AUSL/City Hall gang must have breathed a big sigh of relief last month, when CPS removed Collins from the probation list. CPS awarded Collins "Level 2" status, deeming it to be a school in "good standing" -- no longer part of the city's "123,000 under-performing seats."

I bet you're wondering how Collins pulled off this feat. Just what kind of bump in the school's test scores was needed to get this AUSL "success story" back in "good standing"? The answer might surprise you.

So buckle up and join me as we enter the upside-down world of big-money school reform.

When Emanuel spoke to the Collins kids at the end of the 2010-11 school year, just 15.0% of them were meeting state standards in reading. Only 14.8% of them were meeting state standards in math.

Five months later, when the school was taken off probation, those numbers had actually slipped. Only 14.9% of the kids were meeting state standards in reading. Even worse, only 6.8% of the kids were hitting the target in math.

In other words, CPS took Collins off probation and classified it as a school in "good standing," even though its reading and math numbers had dropped over the course of that probationary school year.

How much had they dropped? Well, when Duncan closed the school in 2006, 17.9% of the Collins kids were meeting state standards in reading, and 7.6% of the kids were doing the same in math -- both better numbers than those that just got the connected school taken off probation.

How's that for a successful turnaround?