Proponents ready to argue case for new Champaign charter school

Proponents ready to argue case for new Champaign charter school

CHAMPAIGN — Jeanette Ellerbe wasn't there to witness when it happened — when a young male student at her church's summer camp had suddenly, seemingly, had enough.

After being called on to read out loud, the upcoming Champaign sixth-grader got up and punched through a wall with his fist, she'd been told.

That student, it turned out, was her nephew, whom Ellerbe didn't know as well as she thought she did, she discovered when he joined him for a meeting in the camp president's office.

"It became clear to him why the child had become so upset: He could not read," she said.

"He was one of those ones who's always acting up in class, making children laugh and doing something to get the attention pretty much off of him, we came to find out. He would be going into the sixth grade. I began to ask the question, 'Where did we fail him?'"

Ellerbe was among the speakers at a recent meeting held at Jericho Missionary Baptist by backers of a charter school aimed at improving academic progress in low-income and low-achieving students within the Champaign school district.

At 5:30 p.m. Monday at Unit 4's Administrative Center, founders of the North Champaign Academy will make their formal case for why Unit 4 should support a new charter school, to be housed in a 15,000-square-foot facility at 1400 W. Anthony Drive. The request seeks a $14,845-per-student-per-year investment by the district.

School board President Chris Kloeppel has said a decision is expected within two weeks of Monday's hearing.

Expect to hear stories like Ellerbe's during the public-comment portion.

She knew her nephew had some behavioral issues but said she also considered him to be a very "respectable" kid — one who didn't "back talk" elders and constantly worried about the well-being of his mom, who Ellerbe said has had serious health issues for most of her adult life.

"So I knew he was dealing with that type of issue in his home, and he had a father who lived right here but never interacted with him," she said. "I'm sure some of those issues were a part of him not being able to focus or learn."

But how, she wondered, did he make it so far in school without being fully literate?

"I wondered: What could the school system have done to help him?" Ellerbe said. "I was asking all of these questions because I knew doors would be closed to him. Because if you cannot read or do math, the opportunity for success diminishes."

When her nephew reached Franklin Middle School, Ellerbe said he was put into a special-education program, where he did "well." Now, she said, he's on track to graduate from Central High School this year. While she's thankful for that achievement, she said she also worries about what comes next for her nephew, who she said struggles to even fill out basic job applications.

"He's like 'I can't do it, TT,'" she said. "His auntie, she was trying to help him go online and kind of do it, but he's just so discouraged and so ashamed and all of that."

Ellerbe said her nephew is not alone. A monitor who works on buses that go to and from Dr. Howard and Bottenfield elementary schools, Ellerbe said she regularly encounters children who can't spell words they should know how to, given their grade level.

It's one reason she supports the idea of a charter school, particularly the self-described "holistic" approach and emphasis on developing family relationships that NCA founders have in mind.

Zola: ISAT, PARCC 'cannot be compared'

Central to local charter school supporters' proposal is six years' worth of standardized testing data, taken straight from the "report cards" compiled by the Illinois State Board of Education from data provided by each district.

NCA founders focused on data from 2011 through 2017, hoping to illustrate a point about the achievement gap in Unit 4:

In 2011, test results showed that black third-graders within Unit 4 comprised 15.2 percent of the lowest-achieving members of their demographic.

By 2017 — following several statewide shifts in assessment standards, types of tests administered and scoring changes — the number of black third-graders within the lowest-achieving category had reached 52.1 percent.

Some community members say the numbers show what was already common knowledge: that the district achievement gap is a significant one, necessitating a bold, new approach.

But Unit 4 officials argue that the issue is more complex than two numbers reveal. They attribute the widening of the gap to a number of factors — including a shift in testing, from the Illinois Standard Achievement Test (ISAT), which was used in 2011, to the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Career Readiness (PARCC) test in 2015. That, they say, caused a downward spiral in test scores and negated the ability for the numbers to be compared at all.

"While both tests measured student achievement, these numbers cannot be compared equally due to changes in Illinois testing standards during that time frame," said Unit 4 Superintendent Susan Zola.

Zola went on to point out:

In 2013, ISBE decided that the ISAT's cut-off scores — the lowest possible score a student could earn to prove they "passed" or were "proficient" in a subject — were too low, meaning that the test was too easy to pass. ISBE bumped up that score so it fell more "in line with Common Core's more rigorous standards," according to ISBE documentation on the subject.

Zola said the ISAT provided a "false positive" to students about where they were academically — something that would unfold as they progressed through school. "My recollection was that individuals saw or got one side of information from ISAT, and then when they transitioned to high school, found out something different," she said.

Across the state, the number of students who met or exceeded test standards dropped and some of them were recategorized as "needing improvement," according to Zola.

In 2015, ISBE decided to do away with ISAT altogether and replaced it with PARCC testing. ISBE marketed the implementation of PARCC as a from-scratch start, emphasizing that "PARCC exam results cannot be compared to test scores from the state's previous assessments" and that expectations for student achievement would be "higher" than with previous tests.

PARCC also differed from ISAT in that it could be taken on computers, although a paper version of the test remained available.

Zola said it's possible that the increase in underachieving students could be chalked up to the change in test. "They were moving from a paper-pencil assessment at a time when many districts were not at a 1:1 ratio, so I think some individual teachers would tell you that just from the expectation of students moving to that test — getting accurate information isn't possible."

Walker: Discounting data a 'bogus' argument

The effect those changes had on students across the district, however, wasn't uniform.

After PARCC was implemented in 2015, 9 percent of white third-graders fell into the Level 1 — or "did not meet expectations" category. For black third-graders, that number was 39.1 percent.

By 2017, 11.8 percent of white third-graders were in Level 1 compared to 52.1 percent of black third-graders.

"The 'apples-to-oranges' argument because the test changed is bogus," said NCA steering committee member Craig Walker. "The percent drop by black students is way larger than the percent drop by white students in the same time period."

The 2017 test results were a cause for alarm for some community members, but one of the reasons the data from 2011 was used was to make a comparison about district leadership changes.

"The time frame is relevant because the district was taken over by local people with no experience in 2011 and hence the results," Walker said, pointing to the 2011 departure of Unit 4 Superintendent Arthur Culver.

During Culver's nine-year tenure, Unit 4's test scores didn't show the same discrepancy as they do now. Now the superintendent of East St. Louis schools, his online biography touts his achievements in Unit 4, pointing out that "African American elementary math and reading scores improved by 30 percent and 26 percent, respectively, while the District worked to meet the mandates of a Federal Consent Decree."

But Culver's term dates back to the years of ISAT testing — years in which the cut-off scores were low enough to make "the ISAT look like an easy, undemanding test that was based on easy, undemanding standards," according to a report co-authored by University of Illinois-Chicago instructor Paul Zavitkovsky.

That led ISBE to enact "more rigorous" standards for future tests, according to the study co-authored by Zavitkovsky, whose 18 years as a principal included a stop at Chicago's Boone Elementary, a high-poverty school that became the first in the district ever to receive the International Reading Association's Exemplary Reading Program Award for the state.

UIC expert: It's fair to compare some numbers

Zavitkovsky, who specializes in studying assessments, said the argument that PARCC and ISAT results cannot be compared is a false one.

"It's definitely possible to compare results on the ISAT and PARCC, even though people don't feel like you can," he said. "What makes it possible to compare the two tests for predictive purposes is that if you score around the 50th percentile on the ISAT, the likelihood is that you'll score in the same location on the PARCC exam.

"But the results on the PARCC and ISAT did distribute in the same way. The way you can end up comparing the two, you see where a score falls on that scale of statewide distribution."

What the lowest categories mean for each test, however, is not exactly equivocal.

With ISAT, a low score meant a student's work "demonstrates limited knowledge and skills in the subject."

With PARCC, Level 1 means a student "did not meet expectations."

Some of the most useful PARCC data, Zavitkovsky says, can be found in comparing different subgroups within Unit 4 — including race and free lunch status — to the rest of the state.

Zavitkovsky, who analyzed the data, pointed specifically to:

In 2017, 214 third-grade African-American students who were eligible for the free lunch program tested below the median state score of around 712, earning a score in the 690s in English/Language Arts. The statewide median for this demographic was a score above 700 but below 725.

In the same year, 79 white third-graders who were also eligible for the free lunch program tested just below 725, compared to a statewide median that was just over 725.

"Part of the data that makes this worrisome is that students of color are coming out of third grade scoring a grade level or two below where they are," Zavitkovsky said. "A third-grade score is predictive of how a student might score (on a different test) in 11th grade unless there are major interventions."

Zola says Unit 4's plan to narrow the achievement gap within the district is to assess what's working and what isn't. That will be determined by continued collaboration with the Education Equity Excellence Committee, made up of district staff and community members, and from informational retreats Unit 4 officials will attend later this year.

"As those plans move forward, we want to look at the things that we're doing to close that achievement gap," she said. "We want to continue to be thoughtful about what we need to add that will allow me as a superintendent to confirm what we're already doing and figure out what needs to be done."