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There are approximately 410,000 students in the 655 schools in the CPS system. That’s approximately 18.8% of all Illinois public school students.

  • 84.9% of these students are from low-income families;
  • 14.4% of these students are limited-English-proficient;
  • 91.3% of these students attend school on any given day, including only 84.3% of high school students;
  • 12% of these students receive special education services. In some high schools, the special education ratio is as high as one in three students;

I don’t care who your teachers are or how nice your school facilities are. Union or non-union. Charter, Performance or Traditional. Those statistics mean the odds are stacked against the vast majority of CPS students in any given classroom.

Its too difficult to do an in depth examination of what the day-to-day experience is like at a failing CPS school. There’s too much variability. Too many schools and students. Instead, let’s simply examine three things a little closer: the prevalence of students in Special Education programs, test scores at one south-side elementary school marked for Turn Around, and profiles of a couple of students at failing Robeson High.


There are approximately 53,000 special education students in the Chicago Public School System. About 60 percent of these have learning disabilities.

There are success stories. At Rogers Elementary, forty-five percent of special education students passed grade level reading tests in 2005. In 2001, only fifteen percent did. Unfortunately, that made Rogers Elementary one of only 26 CPS elementary schools which came close to meeting NCLB standards in reading for special education students.

[In 2005] at 212 elementary schools, fewer than 10 percent of special education students met state standards in reading and, at 85 of those schools, not one student did. High schools’ results were worse.

NCLB requires that 95 percent of special education students must take the same test as regular education students. Prior to NCLB, special education students generally were not required to take standards tests.

At least 50 percent must pass reading, math and science. Fewer than 25 percent of CPS elementary special education students did so last year (up from 16 percent in 2005). By high school that pass rate fell to less than 10 percent. Provided that they are even still in school by that point.

Perhaps in the comments below Ali can enlighten us on the joys and frustrations of teaching special education students in the era of NCLB.

Oliver Wendell Holmes Elementary

At the outset of this series I noted how parents and teachers from Oliver Wendell Holmes Elementary School were picketing McDonalds and Walgreens. Holmes Elementary was listed as a potential “turn-around” school on the initial 2009 CPS school closing report.

As of 2007, there are 560 students enrolled at Holmes Elementary. 0.0% are Limited English Proficient. 99.1% are Low Income. The Daily Attendance rate is 90.7%. The student population is 97.9% African-American.

Holmes Elementary is located in Englewood, one of the most violent neighborhoods in Chicago.

In the last year there were 2,907 crimes within 8 blocks of the school. There were 124 crimes within one block of the school, including 14 assaults, 28 batteries, 28 narcotics busts and 2 handgun possession violations. Twenty of these offenses occurred in the school building and ten others occurred on school grounds.

In October 2007, Holmes fifth grader Arthur Jones died of gunshot wounds to the neck and foot on his walk home from school.

Holmes Test Scores 2001-2008

Year Exceed Meet Below Warn
2001 2.2 24.6 59.0 14.2
2002 2.7 28.8 51.3 17.2
2003 2.7 24.5 53.5 19.3
2004 1.5 25.3 49.6 23.5
2005 2.1 24.8 53.7 19.4
2006 2.1 36.0 52.6 9.4
2007 3.4 42.2 44.8 9.7
2008 3.3 38.2 48.1 10.4


To be perfectly honest, its difficult to make heads or tails of the testing data.

In 2006 changes were made to the state standards test, the ISAT. Changes included extra time and a livelier format, but mostly the bar was lowered. In eighth-grade math, “meet” was lowered from the 67th to the 38th national percentile, ostensibly to put it in line with other tests.

After these changes, scores for students in Illinois rose across the board. Throughout the state, scores rose by 24 percentage points to 78 percent. Chicago students doubled their pass rate.

I don’t know whether the standards then or now were more accurate. Regardless, it makes comparisons prior to 2006 more difficult. Its probably going to take a couple more years before we have enough data to compare against the new 2006 baseline.

Second, the nature of the changes being made to the CPS system, especially school choice, make it difficult to make comparisons at individual schools like Holmes. Enrollment has fallen from 718 in 2005 to 520 in 2008. Who are the students that are left? The good students? The bad students?

Perhaps, rather than looking at pass rates overall for the school, it makes more sense to look at specific classes. To examine whether a class of students progresses over the course of several grades.

The chart below details the performance of students at Holmes Elementary that were in third grade in 2005, progressing through their sixth grade test results in 2008. Again, its not likely to be the same students all the way through, but I think its more accurate than looking at overall numbers.

Holmes Third Graders in 2005 Meets/Exceeds
Year Grade Reading Math
2005 Third 18.5 32.5
2006 Fourth 32.7 34.5
2007 Fifth 25.5 44.2
2008 Sixth 43.3 37.3


Using the same methodology, the data for fifth graders in 2005.

Holmes Fifth Graders in 2005 Meets/Exceeds
Year Grade Reading Math
2005 Fifth 16.0 19.7
2006 Sixth 30.8 33.8
2007 Seventh 44.6 39.3
2008 Eighth 48.1 40.0


Giving this data the “smell test,” I’d say that both of these classes have made progress.

Robeson High School

Chicago Public Radio recently did a series on Chicago students chances of graduation, entitled Fifty-fifty. The series examined life at southside high school, Robeson High.

In the last year there were 2,506 crimes within 8 blocks of the school. There were 258 crimes within one block of the school, including 24 assaults, 79 batteries, 26 narcotics busts, 4 unlawful use of other dangerous weapon, 1 handgun possession violations and 7 armed with handgun robberies. 103 of these offenses occurred in the school building and 7 occurred on school grounds.

Like other schools in the CPS system, as a result of violence at and outside gyms, Robeson has a ban on visiting fans at high school basketball games.

The graduation rate at Robeson is 39 percent. In 2007, there were 1282 students enrolled at Robeson. The student population is 99.4% African-American and 96.5% are classified Low Income. The Daily Attendance rate was 78.4% in 2007 and 59.9% in 2008.

Even the 39 percent graduation rate is deceptively high however. In 2007, only 2.9% of the 1282 students met or exceeded state standards. That means 37 out of 1282 kids met state standards but 500 of them will eventually graduate.

By way of comparison, thirty seven students amounts to less than half the number of girls (80) at Robeson that got pregnant last year.

Who are some of these students at Robeson?

Fifteen-year-old Mykelle Wheeler. His friend Brian Murdock was recently murdered. Brian was his fifth classmate that has been killed during his years in school. One was beat to death with a baseball bat. Four were shot.

Mykelle consistently skips his ninth period English class. How does his mother react? “She don’t like that, when people gotta call and tell her about what I do. She don’t like that. She get mad. She be yelling at me and stuff. But it be my fault. So I can’t say nothing.”

Note the comment by CPS teacher “Sophie” on the Mykelle article:

Sadly, Mykelle’s behavior is typical of the overwhelming majority of CPS students in poor district schools. Last year, out of 28 kids, only 10 regularly attended my last period class. The missing 18 did not all have ADHD. I called home, sent letters, but nothing changed, so I just concentrated on the 10 who wanted be there and we had a wonderful and close knit class. Now I teach at a selective enrollment high school, and the difference is night and day. Everyone comes to last period. It is the day before Xmas break and all my students came. These kids are not any smarter or richer or privileged than the students I taught last year, but they are willing to put in much more effort and be in school every day. That makes all the difference.

Mr. Kuriakose
Mr. Kuriakose teaches freshman algebra at Robeson.

Because Robeson doesn’t have enough classrooms to go around, Kuriakose moves from room to room every hour. This might seem like a minor detail, but the truth is, it really goofs things up. He has nowhere to hang up student work or class guidelines. Nowhere to keep supplies or books. When the bell rings he’s got four minutes to get to his next class, just like students.

WBEZ also examines the stay-in-school/drop out choice confronting Demetrius Davis. Demetrius is a sixteen year old who attends Robeson Achievement Academy. The Acadamy is for kids who are too old for elementary school but have not graduated eighth grade. Demetrius has nine months to make up both 8th grade and freshman year.

Demetrius reads at a sixth grade level. He has fathered three babies with two different young ladies. Like his mom, dad, step-dad and brother, Demetrius has spent time in confinement.

Demetrius reads at a 6th grade level.


I don’t really have a conclusion. I just wanted to provide more detail on some of the obstacles facing both CPS and the students in the CPS schools.

There are thriving schools in the system. There are failing schools. The same goes for individual students and teachers.

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