RSD’s school closure process has uneven effect on students at failing schools

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Jessica Williams/The Lens

Seth Wattigney, right, and Peter Schexnayder moved from Murray Henderson Elementary when it was closed due to low standardized test scores. They were fortunate, ending up at Paul Habans Charter School. Habans didn't receive a grade from the state this year because it's under new management, but its students did well enough to earn it a B. Students from two other closed schools weren't as lucky, ending up at schools that were about the same as the ones they left.

When the Recovery School District closed the failing Murray Henderson Elementary last summer, Linda Wattigney’s three grandchildren were assigned to Paul Habans Charter School.

“Habans has been wonderful,” Wattigney said of the school, where kids performed well enough on standardized tests to receive a B grade from the state — but it wasn’t graded because it’s under new management.

That’s what should happen when the Recovery School District closes a substandard school: The students go to classrooms where they can learn.

The reality, however, is messier. Of the four schools that were closed last summer, students from two of them generally attend better ones — in the case of Habans, significantly better. Those who were at the other two mostly ended up in similar, poorly performing schools.

Veronica Washington’s four grandchildren are among the latter. She was told to apply to Benjamin Banneker Elementary School when James Weldon Johnson Elementary School was closed. Banneker is a D school.

Seth Wattigney, right, and Peter Schexnayder moved from Murray Henderson Elementary when it was closed due to low standardized test scores. They were fortunate, ending up at Paul Habans Charter School. Habans didn't receive a grade from the state this year because it's under new management, but its students did well enough to earn it a B. Students from two other closed schools weren't as lucky, ending up at schools that were about the same as the ones they left.

Seth Wattigney, right, and Peter Schexnayder moved from Murray Henderson Elementary when it was closed due to low standardized test scores. They were fortunate, ending up at Paul Habans Charter School. Habans didn't receive a grade from the state this year because it's under new management, but its students did well enough to earn it a B. Students from two other closed schools weren't as lucky, ending up at schools that were about the same as the ones they left.

And at the end of this year, Banneker will close, too, pushing her grandchildren to their third school in three years.

Last summer, The Lens reported that most students leaving the RSD’s four closed schools were headed to other substandard schools. That was based on the 2012 state grades, which were the most recent available — and the ones that parents relied on while selecting schools this year.

Later, the state released the 2013 grades. They show that most schools in the city have boosted their test scores.

So we wanted to know: Based on the latest scores, are the students who left those failing schools in better academic environments? Or are their new schools still at the back of the pack?

The answer: It depends.

Most students who left Henderson and Benjamin E. Mays Preparatory School are at schools graded C or better.

But about 60 percent of those who left Abramson Elementary and James Weldon Johnson Elementary are at D or F schools — or would be if they were graded.

Most Abramson, Johnson students moved to substandard schools

The Lens’ effort to learn what happened to students at these four failing schools was hampered by the RSD’s decision to withhold some information. It wouldn’t disclose exactly how many of the students from those four schools ended up at each destination school, saying student privacy, which is protected by federal law, could be compromised.

Instead, the RSD grouped destination schools by their letter grades. So while the district wouldn’t say how many students left Abramson and went to Benjamin Franklin Elementary, it did say how many of those students went to B schools, which includes Ben Franklin.

The RSD also provided the number of students who went to default schools, where students were assigned if their parents didn’t choose one. Overall, the RSD released figures for about 650 students who left the four closed schools and enrolled in another public school through the common enrollment process.

For Abramson, the default was ReNEW Schaumburg Elementary. About 49 percent of Abramson kids wound up there, according to figures provided by Gabriela Fighetti, executive director of enrollment for the RSD. Another 3 percent went to F schools.

Schaumburg’s 2013 School Performance Score would have earned it an F, just like the year before. But because it was taken over by the charter network ReNEW Schools this school year, the state didn’t issue a grade in 2013.

Including Schaumburg, more than half of Abramson students now attend schools that got an F or would have if they were graded. When you add in those who go to D schools, the percentage rises to 59 percent.

Another 22 percent are at schools graded C or better. The rest went to schools assigned a T or other schools that, like Schaumburg, weren’t graded.

However, most of those destination schools did post better scores, some by more than 10 points.

RSD spokeswoman Zoey Reed said that shows undeniable progress. “We do have a ways to go,” she said, “but we’ve made such great, amazing gains in such a short time period.”

Students who left Johnson Elementary are in a similar situation. Just over half of them — 53 percent — were assigned to the nearby Benjamin Banneker Elementary, according to RSD figures.

Banneker got an F in 2012. Even fewer students passed standardized tests in 2013. But in 2013, because the state changed its grading scale, it received a D.

Largely due to Banneker’s better grade, RSD figures show that most Johnson students — about 61 percent — ended up at D schools.

Another 28 percent went to C or better schools, and a handful went to F schools. The rest ended up at ungraded or T schools.

Mays, Henderson students fare better

The RSD gave students at Benjamin E. Mays Preparatory School priority in OneApp because no charter operator would take over the school.

As The Lens reported this summer, most of those students are at better schools as a result: 55 percent of Mays kids now attend schools graded C or better. Just 11 percent are at D or F schools.

Most students at Henderson, the smallest of the four closed schools, now attend Habans or schools graded C or better. Although Habans received a D in 2012, enough students passed the test in 2013 to earn it a B. However, it didn’t get a grade because it’s under new management this year.

Seth’s grandparents, William and Linda, love Habans because they work well with Seth, who has autism.

“He’s learning so much. I can’t believe it,” said William Wattigney. Seth was more specific: “I learn maths and subtracts, addition, multiplication, anything.”

Many of the destination schools for Henderson and Mays students benefited from the state’s change in its grading formula, put into place in 2013. Some of those scores increased by more than 10 points.

Exceptions to state grading obscure picture

Under its grading system, the state wipes the slate clean for failing schools under new management. And in 2013, the state changed its grading scale, which made it easier for some poorly-performing schools to receive higher grades.

Abramson Elementary illustrates how these policies make it hard to assess whether students in the city’s worst students are being moved to better classrooms, or simply shuffled to other underperforming schools.

Based on 2012 test scores, 77 percent of students who left Abramson now attend an F or T school. When you look at 2013 scores, it’s just 17 percent.

But that doesn’t tell the full story. Nearly half of the Abramson students who participated in the city’s common enrollment process were assigned to ReNEW Schaumburg Elementary. Based on how few kids passed their tests in 2013, Schaumburg would have gotten an F.

But because Schaumburg was taken over by the charter network ReNEW Schools, the state didn’t issue a grade in 2013.

Under the state’s scoring system, schools in their first year of new management aren’t graded. And for the next two years, regardless of their score, those schools are given a T to denote that they are in transition.

The RSD excluded Schaumburg and other schools without grades when it calculated how many of the destination schools were failing. If the district had included Schaumburg, the percentage of former Abramson students at failing schools this year would be 51 percent, not 17.

Fighetti said she feels good about Schaumburg’s future under ReNEW’s management. “We are glad that families decided to enroll there,” she said.

Overall, 13 schools in the city — about one in seven — would have received a D or F based on their 2013 test scores. Instead, they got a T or were ungraded.

What about the other schools attended by former Abramson students? Because of changes to the state’s grading formula, about half of those schools would have received a lower grade in 2013 if they had been evaluated under the old formula.

In 2013, the state changed its grading scale for School Performance Scores, as well as what factors into those scores. As a result, scores that would have been a high F are now a low D. On the other end of the scale, schools that would’ve earned a low A are now a high B.

Many of those destination schools would have received lower grades under the old system, although they generally posted higher School Performance Scores.

“While our students certainly have a long way to go, what you see is that these students did have access to better schools and are at better schools,” Fighetti said.

However, she said she wished “every parent would have submitted a OneApp,” which she said would’ve given them better options for their kids.

Brighter future for Washington?

The RSD will close Banneker, along with two other RSD schools, at the end of the school year. This time, about 600 Banneker and A.P. Tureaud Elementary students will receive first preference at any of the district’s other chartered elementary schools, just like it did for Mays students last year. Another high school, Walter L. Cohen, will graduate its last class after being phased out for years.

That’s because the RSD’s pool of directly run schools has all but disappeared in recent years as the district has closed schools and turned others over to charter operators.

And like most students who left Mays, Washington’s grandchildren could end up at better schools.

She said she’s upset, though, that she and her daughter have had to move them so many times. “If they knew that the school was closing, they shouldn’t have recommended that the kids go from Johnson to Banneker,” she said.

Washington hopes to get her grandchildren in Lafayette Academy, where three other grandchildren are.

Lafayette is a C school – but it would have gotten a D, had it been graded under the old system.

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