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CPS inspector: High school at Cook County Jail phonied up attendance

Wednesday, September 13, 2017
Chicago Sun-Times
by Lauren FitzPatrick

The alternative high school operated by the Chicago Public Schools inside the Cook County Jail has been falsifying credits and attendance for hundreds of students for years, cheating some of the city’s most at-risk students of an education, CPS’ inspector general has found.

In a report Tuesday detailing a litany of academic fraud, Inspector General Nicholas Schuler called the York Alternative High School at 2700 S. California “a credit mill.” Schuler is urging CPS to fire its principal, Sharnette Sims.

York has routinely granted attendance and course credit to students who already had left the jail or been moved to solitary confinement, where they couldn’t attend classes, according to Schuler. In one case, he said, a student who had gotten out of jail and was killed a week later was still being listed as attending class despite being dead, Schuler found.

His investigation, which looked at York’s practices as far back as 2012, was prompted by a February 2016 Chicago Sun-Times column in which Neil Steinberg wrote that former teachers contacted him after he’d toured classrooms, “claiming the principal pressured them to give inmates credit for classes they never finished.”

Those former teachers were correct, Schuler said.

He also other problems, including a “deficient and dishonest course structure” — which was described as “blended learning” — that combined multiple courses in a single classroom under the direction of teachers who were unaware of which students needed which classes. One teacher reported a student getting course credit for watching a science documentary series by Neil deGrasse Tyson.

“We agree having a diploma would be great,” Schuler said in an interview, but he added, “giving them credit for when they were in solitary confinement, that’s disingenuous. That isn’t real help. You’re depriving them of the benefit of an education.”

A student studies at York Alternative High School inside the Cook County Jail. | Ashlee Rezin / Sun-Times

In his report, he cited standardized test scores at the jail school that showed the lowest growth in reading and math growth out of all of CPS’ so-called “options” schools, which serve at-risk students. “Despite the favorable graduation, credit-attainment and attendance rates reported, actual student learning has been minimal,” the report said.

Teachers also complained to him that Sims, the principal, discouraged them from reporting dangerous incidents.

In recommending that Sims be fired, Schuler wrote, “The school cannot falsify data and award credits that were not earned.”

He said CPS officials — who received his report in June — have told him they are still considering what discipline the principal merits.

Inside York Alternative High School at the Cook County Jail. | Ashlee Rezin / Sun-Times

Sims — who was paid $139,000 last year to oversee the jail school, about 200 students and their teachers — didn’t respond to requests for comment Tuesday. Her CPS evaluation is based in part on her school’s attendance.

CPS spokesman Michael Passman said officials are reviewing Schuler’s findings.

Cara Smith, a top aide to Sheriff Tom Dart, said the report “is certainly discouraging” and “confirms the concerns we’ve had about what was happening in the program.”

Previously, in a posting on the school’s website, Sims wrote: “At the end of their tenure here, students should feel empowered to transition with the innermost mind and skill sets that allow competent men and women to bear responsibility for accepting and accessing pathways to productive citizenship . . . The work we do on a day-to-day basis speaks volumes about who we are, and what we believe about the young men and women we unselfishly serve.”

When Sims took over at York in 2012, she shifted classes to a 100-minute block schedule that let students finish a course in a seven-week term, or six terms per school year. That allowed students to take as many as 18 courses in a year. Graduation rates soared to the second-highest level among all CPS schools for at-risk students. But the shorter terms — about 37 days each — made attending every day crucial.

According to a former longtime teacher who was interviewed by investigators, that meant students could miss only one day of class to legally earn credit. But students frequently had to miss class to “go to court, or they’re in confinement, or there are other security issues, and they don’t come to class,” the teacher, who spoke on the condition of not being identified by name, told the Sun-Times. “We were forced to issue credits.”

On a school website, Sims touted improvements in the numbers of students earning credits and in students’ average length of stay.

But Schuler found that, from 2012 to 2016, as many as 342 students were improperly kept on the attendance rolls after they were released from the jail — in 54 instances, they stayed on the books for more than 100 extra days. York issued credits 126 times to students during false enrollments, he found.

According to Schuler, Sims pressured teachers to find a way to credit students who hadn’t spent enough time in class to pass the course.

“Based on the totality of the evidence,” Schuler wrote, “the principal clearly established an environment at the schools where teachers were expected to overcome their concerns about short enrollments and missed classroom instruction and find a way to distribute credits to students.”

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