Education | Features

How Do You Score a School?

Students and administrators at Amandla Charter School argue that it deserves to stay open

Olivia Adams

Quiz on Chapter Nine!”

The voice of Amandla Charter School CEO (and twelfth grade teacher) Jennifer Kirmes reverberated through a locker-lined hallway of Amandla’s fourth floor. Despite classes having ended over two hours ago, students were still milling about, waiting for their siblings or for a ride home. Christian Davis, a parent of an eleventh grade Amandla student and lifelong resident of Englewood, where Amandla is located, called the school “my little village.”

“The kids have somewhere positive to go,” said Davis. “Truthfully. We don’t have a YMCA in the neighborhood, or a field house that’s really safe. Seeing your kid come from school being totally happy…you know they’re safe.”

However, Davis may no longer be able to rely on Amandla as a safe place in the community. On October 26, 2015, Chicago Public Schools released a press announcement titled “CPS Announces More Rigorous Charter School Accountability Policy.” Ten schools were listed as in danger of closure based on the new policy, pending its approval. The press release said that the new policy was intended to “hold charters to the same academic standards as district-run schools.” At the November 18 Board of Education meeting, three of those schools were condemned to closure following the 2015-16 school year, and Amandla was one of them.

All three of those schools—Amandla, Betty Shabazz Charter School, and the Bronzeville Lighthouse Charter School—are located on the South Side. Both the schools themselves and other education organizations in Chicago have spoken out against CPS’s methods for deciding on the closures. In the case of Amandla, school officials dispute the fairness of CPS’s decision. Even a traditionally anti-charter group, Raise Your Hand (RYH), has vouched for the school. While the debate over public education in Chicago is often framed as a black-and-white fight between pro- and anticharter groups, that framing obscures the distinctions between individual schools and their respective roles in the community. As parents and community members protest this charter school’s closing just as others protested the mass closing of public neighborhood schools in 2012, the debate over Amandla’s place in Englewood raises questions about the best way to evaluate a school.

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Named after a Xhosa word meaning “power,” Amandla Charter School opened in 2008, as the brainchild of five teachers at Robeson High School in Englewood, a public neighborhood school. The effort was community-based: the founders knocked on doors throughout the neighborhood. Davis noted over the phone that she heard about the school’s great reputation from one of her neighbors, and decided to check it out herself.

“When we first went there for the tour, the whole environment was so inviting,” Davis said. “I mean, they took us in just like we were family.” Her eleventh-grade daughter has been a student there since fifth grade.

Amandla administrators pride themselves on accepting all students, regardless of their circumstances. According to the 2015 Illinois School Report Card, 21.2 percent of Amandla students are eligible for special education services, and 26.2 percent are homeless. 97.5 percent of Amandla’s students are low-income. Amandla’s special education programming has a special place at the school.

“They help him a lot,” said Theresa Clark, the parent of Robert, a special needs student. “He’s at a point where he’s comfortable there, and to take him and put him somewhere else would be really devastating. Every other school I ever put him in, he’s had nothing but problems.”

Amandla served only one fifth-grade class when it first opened, and has recruited new fifth grade classes every year since 2008. At the end of the 2015-16 school year, Amandla will be graduating its first, and perhaps last, senior class. The decision to include such a wide range of grade levels—five through twelve—came from statistical data regarding the effect that transition periods have on student performance. Amandla CEO Jennifer Kirmes noted that the eighth- to ninth-grade transition proves particularly difficult for many students. Because the students at Amandla stay in one building during this time, Amandla supporters claim the transition is easier.

“[It’s] because she still had the same teachers,” Davis said of her child. “She’d still be in an environment that she’s used to and comfortable with. She’ll still have the same friends, and nothing really has to change.”

Principal Alyssa Nickow (right) and CEO Jennifer Kirmes (left). Olivia Adams

The school is a single-site charter school—the equivalent of a mom-and-pop establishment compared to popular charter networks in Chicago like the well-known Noble School Network. Amandla leaders maintain that inclusive measures like accepting all students and using
restorative justice instead of harsh discipline and expulsion sets the school apart from other charter schools. When Amandla first opened, the administration used a demerit-based system that was more rigid and systematic than its current system, the school’s principal, Alyssa Nickow, explained. The new system, Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS), was developed by the education development organization Safe and Civil Schools. It focuses on individualized positive reinforcement and restorative discipline, so that students who fail to meet expectations are required to do things like school cleanup and relationship counseling in order to remedy their conflicts. It’s a staple of the single-site school and was introduced as school-wide policy about three years ago. Nickow said PBIS helps students learn to do better in the future, as opposed to a punitive system that is “penalizing them for past behavior.”

“PBIS is difficult. It requires a lot of relationship building, it requires a lot of detailed knowledge of your students and their needs,” Nickow said. “It’s difficult work, but we’re a single-site charter school that’s focused on those close relationships. So it’s really a good fit for us.”

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Much of the back-and-forth between CPS and Amandla over the school’s future is recorded in a 734-page document that Amandla submitted to the Illinois Charter School Commission as an appeal of the CPS charter recommendation, which includes a memorandum arguing the case to keep the school open, in addition to various other pertinent documents. One of those documents was a December 2014 email from Jack Elsey, former chief of CPS’s Office of Innovation and Incubation, which stated that Amandla needed to achieve a School Quality Rating Policy (SQRP)—the annual rating system CPS uses to monitor school performance—rating of less than a 3 in order to be removed from the academic warning list. At the time, Amandla had a rating of 3, the worst rating on a 5-point scale that spreads from 1+ to 3, with 1+ being the best score. The Amandla appeal document acknowledges this poor performance, but says it’s because the rating came when the school was in the midst of changes in the 2013-2014 year, including a new policy of accepting new students in all grades, a switch to their new discipline strategies including PBIS and restorative justice, and the inaugural year of the new NWEA assessment.

Alongside their initial placement on academic warning in December 2014, Amandla’s staff was asked to provide a remediation plan that outlined in detail the specific goals the school planned to achieve by the next academic year. CEO Kirmes and Nickow told the Weekly that they both considered creating the plan a no-brainer; they always create a similar roadmap for the year including academic goals.

In the spring of 2015, the SQRP ratings for the 2014-15 school year were released—Amandla earned a 2. During summer 2015, Amandla participated in the Chicago Education Fund’s Summer Design program, and won grant funds for the implementation of their project focused on making the eighth- to ninth-grade transition easier.

Olivia Adams

Olivia Adams

Then, on October 26, 2015, Kirmes says she received a phone call from Sagar Gokhale, a then-staff member at the CPS Office of Innovation and Incubation. It was bad news: a press release for the new Charter Accountability Policy would be announced in the next two hours, and this new policy would be up for a board vote at the next meeting, just three days later. Although Amandla had achieved the previous benchmark required to exit the academic warning list and remain protected from closure, the approval of this new policy would render them still vulnerable to a board vote on the future of their charter. The press release announced that “any charter that has a Level 3 SQRP rating, a two-year SQRP point value average of 2.5 or lower, or a Level 2 rating in three consecutive years will be placed on the Academic Warning List.” Amandla’s SQRP rating for 2015 was a 2. In the 2013-14 year, however, it had earned a 3, rendering it ineligible for removal from the academic warning list based on the new policy.

CEO Kirmes received a follow-up email on Thursday, October 29 at around 1pm.

Gokhale’s email, included as an exhibit in the Amandla appeal, stipulated that Amandla staff were required to send “already existing documentation, evidence, and/or artifacts of the implementation and monitoring activities that you outlined in the Remediation Plan” by 9am the next morning. According to Kirmes, over a thousand pages of documents regarding the remediation plan were sent to CPS. On November 4, Amandla staff members were notified via a letter signed by CPS CEO Forrest Claypool that the school would be recommended for closure, as it had not successfully implemented its remediation plan. CPS did not provide further explanation to Amandla.

A CPS spokesperson told the Weekly that “Amandla and the other schools on remediation plans had a very clear picture of the specific gains they needed to make because each school determined the goals in their remediation plans.” Additionally, this spokesperson claims that the decision to close Amandla “was not based on the new Charter Accountability Policy,” but rather “guided by the Illinois Charter Schools Law.” The law outlines several conditions for closure of a charter, including a failure to “meet or make reasonable progress towards achievement of content standards or pupil performance standards identified in the charter,” from section 27A-9 (2) of the law.

The CPS spokesperson sent the Weekly a document called “Amandla scorecard,” which shows that Amandla failed to meet some of its goals for various measures like test scores and attendance. The appeal from Amandla contests that the scorecard punishes Amandla for setting goals that were too high, and that their inability to meet all test score goals did not mean they failed to successfully implement a plan for improvement.

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According to the Illinois State Report Card, 33.7 percent of Amandla students met or exceeded expectations on “all state tests” during the 2012-13 school year as a measure of “overall performance.” For 2013-14, 24.0 percent met or exceeded expectations. At Robeson High School, located just across the street from Amandla, the numbers were worse: during the 2012-13 year, 9.6 percent performed at or above standards, while in 2013-14 only 4.5 percent did. In a letter addressed to all CPS Board of Education members, the Amandla Board of Directors wrote that “Amandla offers equal or higher quality than most of the comparable schools within a 2-mile radius of our location,” followed by a number of academic comparisons based on 2015 SQRP points and NWEA percentiles. The letter also said that they had collected 550 signatures from parents, students, and community members on a petition to save Amandla in only four days.

Not all the data is necessarily in Amandla’s favor, however. The 2015 5 Essentials Survey is a statewide comprehensive teacher and student survey developed by the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research. One of the five measured factors, “Collaborative Teachers,” evaluates how involved teachers are in the school. Within that factor is “School Commitment,” which includes questions on loyalty and job satisfaction. At Amandla, this factor is a six (out of one hundred), considered “very weak” in comparison to the CPS average of fifty-one. Fifty-seven percent of teachers at Amandla Charter School responded “disagree” to the following statement: “I would recommend this school to parents seeking a place for their child.”

However, many Amandla parents feel differently. For parents in Englewood, school choice encompasses more than academic performance or college graduation rates. The 5 Essentials Survey also includes information on school safety, where students are asked how safe they feel outside the school, traveling to and from school, and within the building itself. Amandla students rated their overall school safety score to a twenty, significantly lower than the CPS average of forty-six. However, Robeson High School, located just across the street from Amandla, had an even lower rating of eleven.

Kirmes and Nickow said the number one reason why parents keep their kids at Amandla is due to teacher quality and accessibility.

“[The teachers are] pushing them to strive for a better future for themselves. I love that,” Davis said. When I was younger, we didn’t have that; they didn’t care, they just pushed you along.”

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On December 18, Amandla submitted the appeal paperwork to begin proceedings with the state in an attempt to reverse the CPS decision for at least the 2016-17 school year; this past Wednesday, a public hearing was held at the school regarding the appeal process. According to an email from Kirmes, about 250 people attended the meeting, mostly students and parents from Amandla and about a dozen community members. The start of the meeting consisted of presentations to the Commission from both Amandla and CPS staff; most of the meeting was dedicated to public comment. The Commission representatives asked CPS for clarification on the goals laid out in Amandla’s remediation plan. They also asked CPS about any specific concerns regarding the charter school’s financial plan; CPS representatives did not articulate any specific concerns.

Overall, Amandla’s staff were pleased with the meeting.

“We felt like the evening was a true representation of who we are as a school,” Kirmes wrote. “The clear message from the parents, students, and community members who spoke was that Amandla is more than a school, it is a family that needs to stay together for the children.”

In addition to the public hearing, Nickow says Amandla staff also had a closed panel interview with Commission staff in early February, as well as a site visit from the Commission about two weeks ago. According to its website, the Commission must vote within seventy-five days of receiving an appeal; therefore, the Amandla vote must occur by the first week of March.

Amandla’s cause has received support from local community groups, including churches and cafes, and from statewide parent-based public education organization Raise Your Hand. RYH maintains that it is fiscally irresponsible to support charter schools given CPS’s dwindling funds for its neighborhood and magnet schools. However, RYH published a letter of support for Amandla addressed to the CPS Board of Education. The letter says that “the current school rating policy does not take into account multiple factors that are critical to school success and improvement, and rests too heavily on limited factors.”

Brian Harris, President of the Chicago Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff (ACTS) argued in a phone interview with the Weekly that schools should never be shut down. He says that the CPS Board of Education’s policy regarding school closures reminds him of a “stock portfolio,” in that high-performing, large charter networks are rewarded, while lower-performing ones, oftentimes single-sites like Amandla, are punished.

“It’s bad practice!” Harris said. “The school shutting down would be hailed by the board as proof that their system works. And we think that’s just not a very smart way to operate public schools.”

Meanwhile, Amandla has mobilized. On November 18, students, teachers, parents, and community members organized an eight-mile march from the school to the CPS central office downtown. Also in November, a rally was held in Englewood to foster more support for the school and the appeal process. In addition, the Amandla appeal document includes over 120 pages of letters of support for the school from those aforementioned groups, as well as Amandla students themselves. In these letters, students spoke of their aspirations for college, their academic progress, and their relationships with both teachers and classmates.

“I have a teacher that used to take the bus every day and it took him over an hour to get to school,” wrote one Amandla senior. “Seeing him on the bus with me showed me [that he] thinks of us as his own children.”

Students also spoke about their confusion regarding CPS’s recommendation that Amandla should close because of its academic performance. Many compared Amandla’s academic and extracurricular programming favorably to their experiences at other schools; one student wrote that she felt “betrayed” by the recommendation.

“We were told to meet a standard and we met it,” the student wrote. “Mixed signals send a poor and shockingly amateur message to both the students of Amandla Charter school and all those who count on the Board of [Education] to make informed decisions.”

Amandla staff have been working closely with parents to find new schools for their children. Enrollment at Amandla has continued, despite the looming threat to the school’s very existence. When asked whether she had found a place for her four children who attend Amandla, Clark gave a nervous chuckle; she’d rather not think about the what if.

“Really, really aggravated with it,” is how Clark said she felt about the Board of Education’s decision. “Because [Amandla staff] help my children. They’re actually there for them, they actually accommodate them and help them.”

Davis said she is not just worried about where displaced students will go if Amandla closes, but whether these kids would stay in school at all.

“When they said it was gonna be closed, I said I’d chain myself to the doors, so all them kids can stay there, and not take away the best thing in our community,” she said. “There’s a lot of death in Englewood, but the one thing that the kids do have in this neighborhood is Amandla. Them kids are totally happy where they are.”

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Olivia Adams

Olivia Adams

“I’m a senior, and I want our school to stay open because I want the scholars [here] to graduate through Amandla’s charter school.”

—Tasia Smith (left), 18, senior at Amandla Charter School

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Thoughts on “How Do You Score a School?”

  1. I am the parent of the COO at Amandla. I have watched the school grow and change from its inception. I have been a teacher my whole life and have never witnessed dedication, concern and effort among administration and teachers as have seen at Amandla. The atmosphere around the school is very family-like yet academic-and totally student-centered. If the school closes, I will mourn it’s closure as I would mourn the passing of a great hope lost. The children of that community should be able to remain in a school that loves and embraces them as family. Any system that denies them that is broken.

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