Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced Thursday that most charter schools eligible for the financial incentives to lengthen the day by 90 minutes have quickly signaled that they are ready to jump on board. But the location of his announcement–a school with a longer school day and a poor academic track record–shows the complexity of the issue.

“I am proud that charter schools have stepped up,” the mayor said, making the announcement in the auditorium at Chicago International Charter School-Washington Park. Of the 41 charter elementary schools that can apply, 32 are planning to, he said. The schools will get the same amount that regular public schools have been offered: $800 for each teacher and $75,000 for each school that starts in January.

Officials say the plan will cost the district $5 million.

But there’s a rub, one that shows the complexity of the issue. Chicago International is the district’s largest charter school operator, and it has long had school days of 7-1/2 hours—the same length of time that Emanuel wants for all schools.

Yet the academic performance of CICS schools is mixed. CICS-Washington Park and three other campuses are in the district’s lowest performance level this year—the level that CPS officials said just yesterday would put a school in danger of closing.

Four CICS schools are in the middle tier, and only three are in highest level. (Other CICS schools are too new to be measured under the new system.)

No easy fix for better learning

Charter school advocates have made much of the fact that most of their schools already have longer school days than traditional schools. Yet a longer day does not necessarily equal better performance. Two of the charter schools–Galapagos and KIPP Ascend–with the longest hours are also in the lowest performance level. In contrast, the University of Chicago-North Kenwood-Oakland Charter School has a school day of only 6-1/2 hours and is in the highest level, according to a Catalyst Chicago analysis of CPS statistics (available online at the district’s research and accountability website, searchable by school name).

Emanuel and CPS leaders acknowledge that extending the day is a tool and not the entire answer to better achievement. But they have been unresponsive to parents’ questions about how the district will afford to add subjects such as music, recess and art that are often noted as part of a longer school day. It is even unclear how the district, which must close a $44 million deficit, can afford the extended-day grant program.

Beth Purvis, executive director of CICS, says she and other leadership at CICS realize that their Washington Park campus needs to improve. This year, the organization carried out what is essentially a ‘turnaround’ at the school, replacing most of the teachers and all of the administration.

“We believe it is going in the right direction, but that there is a lot of ground to make up,” Purvis says. “There are no magic bullets in education.”

Purvis says that having a longer school day will help them to improve the school’s performance, giving ample time for art, music and long blocks of time for reading and math. Many students come into the Washington Park campus, located in an impoverished neighborhood, behind grade level, she says.

“We need every minute of those minutes to close that gap,” she says.

CICS schools are not eligible for the extra money from CPS. Only those schools that don’t already have the full 90-minute extension can get it. Purvis says she doesn’t think that is fair, but is “completely behind the mayor’s message.”

Many eligible schools already have days that are longer than those at traditional schools– which have about 6 hours of class time–but are still shorter than the 7-1/2 hours that Emanuel wants. The 11 United Neighborhood Organization charter schools have 7 hours and are applying for the grants.  

The move to offer the grant to charters comes at a time when the push to extend the school day at regular schools has come to a standstill. Because the current teachers’ union contract establishes the length of day, teachers at district-run schools were asked to vote for a contract waiver. After teachers at 13 schools approved waivers in September, it has been more than a month since any approved a waiver.

Also, CPS officials might have to stop asking teachers to vote for waivers. Last week, the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board decided to seek a temporary injunction against CPS to stop the district from pursuing any more waivers. The Illinois Attorney General is expected to bring the issue to a circuit court judge soon.

Most charter schools are not unionized, so operators can decide without consulting teachers and principals to set the school day however long they want to. UNO Executive Director Juan Rangel said he made the call after having “conversations” with school directors, who had “conversations” with teachers.

Emanuel bristled at a question about whether he pursued offering the grants to charter schools after failing in his efforts to get regular CPS schools to go forward. “These are Chicago’s children,” he said of charter school students. “These are Chicago’s future.”

Sarah is the deputy editor of Catalyst Chicago.

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