CICS: "Haphazard" Expansion?

The most recent Chicago Schools Wonks includes a long, anguished post from former TFAer Seth Lavin about the pattern of abrupt and usually unpublicized management changes taking place among charter schools in Chicago — CICS and Edison Learning just broke up, just like CICS and AQS broke up a couple of years ago.  He’s dismayed at the changes, and skeptical about the possibility that Edison’s replacement can happen without school and community disruption.”Why did we empower reformers to open campuses so quickly and expand so haphazardly? ”  Charter-haters among you will respond gleefully, I’m sure, but I’m wondering what those folks teaching at or sending their kids to CICS feel about these changes, and the pattern of changes?  It’s not like CPS schools don’t go through sudden direction changes, either.


This week’s biggest story, which nobody covered, relates intimately to my life. That means we need to talk about the details of my brief career. I’ve avoided this, mostly because I want my credibility determined by the sense I make, not by how long I have or haven’t worked in schools. Oh well.

CICS, Chicago’s biggest charter school network, just broke up with EdisonLearning, the education management organization that designed and runs 5 of CICS’ 16 campuses. CICS holds the actual charter for these 16 schools but doesn’t technically design or run any of them itself; it hires EMOs like Edison to do that.

Now Edison is out. Every teacher, staffer and principal at those schools is out too, unless whoever CICS brings in to take over the schools decides to rehire them.

This is the second time in two years CICS quietly ended its contract with its biggest EMO. Last May it dissolved its relationship with American Quality Schools, which also ran 5 CICS campuses. This means in 12 months Chicago’s largest charter school network will replace the organizations that built and ran 10 of its 16 campuses.

That’s insane.

These changes aren’t new turnarounds meant to jump-start innovation at neighborhood schools that have failed for a generation. These are complete reformations of charter schools started 36, 24 and even 12 months ago.

Which takes us back to my career. I’ve only taught for two years—the two years of my Teach for America placement. I’ve only ever taught in one school, an Altgeld Gardens charter school called CICS Lloyd Bond. I’m not teaching there now. I left at the end of last school year when my TFA placement ended.

CICS and Edison founded Lloyd Bond together only 3 years ago, in 2009, the year I started teaching. But it’s not their newest school. It’s not even their second newest school. CICS and Edison founded Larry Hawkins together in 2010 just down the street from Lloyd Bond. Just this year they opened Patriots in Rockford. With Loomis, founded in 2008, that makes 4 schools CICS and Edison created together in the past 5 years.

When CICS and Edison opened each school they recruited students the same way they recruited students to Lloyd Bond in the summer before my first year teaching. They went into the neighborhoods, hosted enrollment fairs, parent meeting, community townhalls—all with a clear message for beleaguered parents: We are the answer to your prayers. We are something better, stronger, more dedicated than your neighborhood school. We will push your students to college and beyond. We are here to stay. Built to last. Trust us with your children.

 Everyone, from parents to press to politicians, bought it.

Here’s the Rockford Register Star writing with excitement about CICS Patriots:

Here’s the founding principal at CICS Larry Hawkins welcoming students there:

Here’s Rahm, mentoring a student from CICS Longwood before he was even inaugurated:

Here’s ABC7 filming my school, CICS Lloyd Bond, on opening day 2009: Watch the clip. Look at the faces of the kids walking into that hallway for the first time and think about how 3 years later the adults who built that school all just voted no confidence in each other.

And here’s CICS’ leader, Beth Purvis, testifying before congress in June of last year:

Read her testimony. Read her telling the story of Derrion Albert’s death and the founding of CICS-Edison’s two schools in Altgeld Gardens.

“Because Altgeld doesn’t have a neighborhood high school, CICS opened the Larry Hawkins campus last September so that students would not have to travel the just under 6 miles across gang lines by public bus from Altgeld to the Roseland neighborhood. What we have learned since opening this school is that the neighborhood feels betrayed and forgotten by the City of Chicago. The average reading level of the 10th, 11th, & 12th graders who enrolled in CICS Larry Hawkins is 5th grade. In addition, over 50% of the students self-report attending school for fewer than 30 days during the previous school year. As shocking as these facts are, we find the students mostly well- behaved, eager to learn, and proud that a new school opened “just for them”.

 I am extremely proud to tell you that Derrion Alpert’s grandfather, Mr. Joseph Walker, joined the CICS Larry Hawkins Launch Committee and spoke on the school’s behalf to the Chicago Public School Board. Included in his remarks was the point that opening the CICS Hawkins campus had helped to heal the Altgeld community.” (pasted as transcribed)

10 months later the relationship between CICS and the organization it asked to design and run those schools—the partnership Derrion Albert’s grandfather praised to the CPS board—is over.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying CICS and Edison divorced each other without good reason. I’m no defender of Edison or Lloyd Bond. There were huge problems in these schools and in this relationship. There’d been a lot of speculation all year that CICS would end its contract with Edison. At one point I’d heard this was because Longwood, the longest-standing campus, was seen as an incurable mess. More lately I’ve heard it’s because Hawkins, the Altgeld Gardens high school Purvis described to Congress, is an incurable mess. I’m told in the end it was Edison that pulled the trigger, backing out before CICS had the chance to dump them. I doubt anyone will ever say on record exactly why the relationship ended.

I’m not saying Purvis and CICS would have made the wrong decision for children had they ditched Edison, as they seemed to be about to, and brought in someone else. But that isn’t my point. I’m also not saying this kind of big disruption isn’t sometimes worth it to get kids out of desperately failing schools. That’s not my point either and I don’t believe that. Remember, as with the Urban Prep stuff a few weeks ago, I’m saying all this as a pro-charter, pro-reform person.

My point is that we, the reformers, are a disaster as a movement if we’re radically changing our own radical changes months after they start and, in the process, tossing students from school regime to school regime like an airline rebooking someone’s flight.

My point is that we have no credibility at all if we tell Congress, let alone parents, that we have every confidence in schools that, privately, we believe in so little we’re months later tossing out the people we asked to build and run them.

My point is that I have no idea how CICS can go into Altgeld Gardens now, as they did this week, and ask parents to continue trusting the organization with their children after telling them it’s ended its relationship with the very adults it last summer put forward as the answer.

In fairness, when CICS broke up with AQS last year it said “None of the campuses will undergo immediate changes in hours, schedules, policies or procedures as a result of the change in management.” Probably they’ll say the same thing when they announce whoever’s replacing Edison.

But I don’t buy it. Edison designed these schools. It hired the principals. It hired the staff and professionally developed them in the Edison way. It picked curricula, built schedules, policies, procedures, management systems, testing systems—even redesigned the buildings. Management organizations expect this kind of control. That’s what they exist to do. I don’t know how you get rid of one management organization, bring in another and say with a straight face that disruption will be minimal.

Which brings us back to what all of this means. CICS didn’t plan to make bad schools or partner with bad school managers. And, faced with bad schools and bad school managers they’re doing what they can to make things better for children—getting those managers out of the way.

But CICS can’t part with the people leading 10 of its schools without acknowledging that somewhere along the way their plans went seriously off the rails.

How did we get into this situation? Why did we empower reformers to open campuses so quickly and expand so haphazardly? What went wrong in the planning everyone green-lighted that has us now acknowledging our reform schools, like the neighborhood schools they’re meant to replace, fail to give children the education they deserve?

None of this is unique to CICS and Edison. Last week ASPIRA, which manages 4 Chicago charter schools, fired its CEO:

Last year KIPP Chicago backed out of Gary, Indiana a year after opening a new high school there.

What does it say about our confidence in the schools we’re building, promoting and celebrating that we’re firing CEOs and kicking out the organizations actually running the schools?

If CICS and Edison were so unhappy with each other why did they open 3 schools in the past 36 months, persuading 1,000 families to entrust CICS-Edison with their children’s futures?

It’s not just school leadership where this is a problem. It’s district leadership, too. In 5 years we’ve had Arne Duncan, Ron Huberman, Terry Mazany and now Jean-Claude Brizard at the top of CPS. To imagine the destructiveness of so much district-level regime change, take the confusion, anger and wasted time caused by these school-level transformations and amplify that hundreds fold.

This doesn’t mean regime change is never worth the disruption it causes, but at this point I think it does mean we have to take into account the negatives caused by disruption, as well as the positives caused by the transformation, in calculating the net outcome of change. And that we have to elevate sustainability as a critical variable in any innovations reform leadership puts forward.

This certainly isn’t unique to Chicago, either. In New York, Bloomberg’s administration is closing 23 schools this year. 9 of them are schools the Bloomberg administration created, according to UFT.

Aren’t we, the reformers, supposed to the competent, well-planned, business-like foil to traditional school leadership whose failures we’re trying to reverse? How can we claim to be any of those things if we can’t keep plans moving forward without changing leadership every two years? Every one year?

It used to take political courage for leaders to say, “Bulldoze the status quo!” It’s not that way any more. What takes courage now is moving beyond the BIG, FAST TRANSFORMATION press releases, accepting that the big, fast transformations are so rarely what they seem to be, and asking everyone to accept slower, more careful, more lasting change.

It doesn’t make much of a bumper sticker, I guess, but it’s that’s only way I see us moving forward.


What do you all think?

Also, CICS, Edison—if I’m getting this wrong or there’s something I’m missing in all this, please let me know. I’ll happily run any official statement either organization wants to make in next week’s Wonks.


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  • Sooooo Alex, did this story ruin your day? Charters are not the panacea that you claim them to be?

    I know, try this for a change............ A story about how some programs are working in public education. Perhaps the College Framework Project. Strange, it never seems to get any attention here. Oh, I know why, it doesn't fit your agenda to undermine public funded schools with with unionized labor.

  • In reply to FrontRow:

    not at all, front row -- why don't you tell us some more about the framework.

  • ps no response from CICS yet -- i think purvis is away from the office this week.

  • In reply to Alexander Russo:

    Cannon Fodder

    Sending a TFA NFG into the gardens boaders on a crimminal act.

  • I am a former teacher at one of the CICS Edison campuses. I stay in touch with some of my former colleagues and most are excited about the upcoming change and see it as a good thing; however I fear it may be wishful thinking on their part that they will keep their jobs as many seem to believe they will. The Altgeld high school suffers from the proximity of Carvery Military Academy which siphons off the highest performing students from the neighborhood. Most students are typical of a neighborhood school, which is not good if your neighborhood happens to be an isolated housing project that is closer to Indiana than Chicago. There's a lot more that can be said however, I will close by saying that as always in these situations the children will end up being the big losers.

  • And one last thing: until charter holders and EMOs adopt a long range view rather than short range, we will continue to see the trend of big promises followed by subpar performance, ending with an acrimonious split/potential school closure.

  • You can smugly label me a charter hater, but CICS Ellison just dumped one of their bad boy gangbangers on ME and my 3rd period class. Most of the students in the class clearly avoid him. He has single handedly changed the dynamic of the class for the worse.

    Yeah I hate charters. I hate them because they can't handle kids with discipline issues but then portray themselves as saviors. I am forced to deal with the product of their ineptitude and then I am labelled a failure because I teach at a struggling school.

    This isn't the first time some charter has jettisoned their flotsam to my school, Urban Prep has sent 4 or 5 just this year- a few of them are even seniors!

  • In reply to district299reader:

    Thank you! The push outs have been coming fast and furious since February. If I get one more Phillips reject........handle your own problems!

  • In reply to district299reader:

    Tell me about it. Phillips sends us 5 or 10 of their rejects each year and our school is at least 8 miles away. I can't imagine what Hyde Park, Tilden, Robeson, Richards, and other schools much closer to them and Urban Prep have to deal with.

  • The problems that charters and so-called reformers are having is the collective result of their movements being hijacked by privateers, neophtyes, eduprenuers, and education amateurs. Honesty is the best policy. If they would just be truthful none of these problems would exist. Then again, if they were truthful it would be revealed that improving education for our children is not their primary objective.

  • Is Donoso Out? I heard it and wondered if it is a rumor.

  • "Derrion Alpert"... was he related to Herb? If you're going to pimp the deceased at least get their name right. Yeah, I'm using salty language, but these are just words. It is pretty gross that they would exploit that kid's tragic death to further their scams, lies, and subterfuge.

  • It was certainly true that Altgeld Gardens needed a high school. Unfortunately for Larry Hawkins, Morgan Park and Carver Military draw the top performers from the Far South Side, leaving Hawkins with the neighborhood kids from the Gardens, students who just missed the cut into selective high schools from the Far South Side (most of whom preferred Longwood which had a wait list while Hawkins was always scrambling to fill slots), and kids who had been expelled from neighborhood schools for a variety of offenses, some serious, all in the name of "meeting the numbers." The staff at Hawkins was top notch but had few resources to work with including policies and procedures. The predictable result: poor morale, poor test scores. Rumors were running rampant since the beginning of the year that Edison was out. Everyone knew what was coming. As said earlier, most who are left seem to believe all will be well with the new operator. Nobody knows who it will be.

  • Schools don't need "operators", they need real, empowered, dedicated professional teachers.

  • Everything has gotten worse since Rahm

  • Edison Leaning Inc., as many know is floundering, the firm was taken private several years ago after its shares collapsed. It is trying to do three different major things at one time. It is trying to be an EMO running charter or contract schools, it’s trying to do turnarounds, and it is attempting to do drop out prevention. Its business model is simply not working and CICS was wise to cut ties.

    But there are more profound problems for the charter sector here in Chicago and in Illinois as a whole. First, is the fiscal crisis of the State and the inevitable impact it will have on charter operators especially if CPS and other districts are eventually forced to cut tuition reimbursements at some point. Second, is the fact that charter schools heavily rely for results on having somewhat supportive working class families that will provide some structure for their children. The Great recession has forced numerous families in the city from a lower income working class situation into unemployment and deeper poverty.

    Because of the expansion of the charter sector and the closing of traditional CPS schools more and more children from fully dysfunctional families that are in deeper poverty are finding their way into these schools. To support these children costs more, even assuming a certain percentage are pushed out as teachers have been describing in their posts. Because of this expansion development and traditional school closure process charters are also getting more special education students and CPS is putting more pressure on charters to not push out these children, these children also drive up costs.

    The problems charters face are in some respects deeper than those for traditional schools because they in most cases lack fiscal reserves and sound credit. We are all, traditional sector and charter sector, unfortunately headed for a period of declining support for all forms of public education do to the deep fiscal crisis in Illinois. We are going the direction of Greece and the future does not look too bright.

    Rod Estvan

  • Wow. It's amazing how the truth will set you free. Five years ago everyone was praising the expansion of charters and how they would be the saving grace of public education in Chicago. It's true that Altgeld Gardens needed or still needs a high school to serve the students in that community. As Seth Lavin and other commenters have expressed, there is a problem and it still doesn't have a viable solution that will fix it.

    I taught at Fenger and still to this day remember one of my students who was put out of Carver who came to school angry every day wearing green and gold Carver colors and being not only negative but brutally hostile to Fenger students, teachers, and staff. "I hate being here and I'm going to do everything I can to get away from this school." And she did. I had never seen such vicious and hateful young people in my life and the fights I witnessed in and outside of the building always left me with the question of "What is wrong with these young people." They fought to maim or kill. I had never seen anything like it in my teaching career. Some people chalked it up to students living in Roseland or Altgeld Gardens. The Wild Hundreds ruled with Terror Town and other factions laying claim to Fenger with the goal of running all students from the Gardens out of Fenger. Was Derrion Albert's murder an impetus for change? It was but the more heart wrenching question is why did he have to die before someone took action to find solutions to the rage and anger of our students?

    This is the core of the problem, angry students who also have profound academic weaknesses. This is the elephant in the room yet we all walk around it and pretend that it's not there. I too believe that all children can learn and all children should have access to a high quality education. With all the closings, turnarounds, and reform measures being implemented in Chicago schools the one issue that continues to be a non-factor in the educational environment of our schools is student behavior, motivation, and the individual desire for them to become a better individuals.

    Carver put this young lady and many others out of the school for disciplinary reasons. I am now working at another far South Side high school that has become the dumping ground of charters and turnarounds. Within the last six weeks we also received transfer students from Urban Prep. I never believe the media hype as that is all it is. One of the students found his way into my class. While he is not a behavior problem (thank God) he does lack motivation of doing work or lately even coming to class. Won't get that college acceptance letter this way so instead of being a rotten apple in the barrel Urban Prep transfers these young men to other schools.

    As Rod mentioned, students who are struggling academically need more resources, differentiated learning opportunities, tutoring, remediation, nuturing, respect, etc., etc., etc. As they don't get the instructional support or emotional/mental services they need at the neighborhood schools, what makes people think the charter schools will be able to perform miracles without serious influxes of cash and professionals.

    It is nice to see TFA's posting their experiences and opinions on blogs and busting the myth that Teachers for America is the best thing since sliced bread. Sending a TFA into the Gardens is criminal. I liked that comment but it's trial by fire these days and I used to say, even as a seventeen year veteran teacher at the time, "If I could teach at Fenger, I could teach anywhere." I didn't and still don't have the cultural bridges to cross these young, promising TFAers have. One of the new teachers in my building who just got hired about six weeks ago was talking to me about the behavior of her students. "It's a huge challenge. I was talking to a security guard about a problem I was having with a student outside my classroom door and somebody threw a piece of fruit out the door. I don't think they were throwing it at me directly."

    Of course they weren't. Target practice is always good when done with an obstacle in the way. She said she's not giving up and is looking forward to breaking them before they break her. Again, the elephant rears it's trunk but nobody sees.

    The question on the table is how long and at what expense to our children whether in charter, contract, turnaround, or neighborhood schools will we allow this tomfoolery to continue before we wake up and embrace our young people with the love, guidance, and direction for making them not only excellent learners but good people as well that a healthy dose of good teaching can provide them. Let's try this experiment. Give the teachers the schools, the money, the political connections and let us craft an educational experience that will truly benefit and empower the next generation.

    I dare you.

  • In reply to district299reader:

    Why waste your ink
    Those of us who have taught, or at least tried to teach, in
    South Side General High Schools know the truth, as do the kids
    we had in class. I suspect some parents community members
    and first responders also know what is going on in those schools.
    The general public is happily ignorant .To reward these teachers,
    who are the absolute best in the business, the Board repays them for
    their service and dedication by firing them .
    Most of the TFA’s I have met were nice kids with a decent work ethic.
    But nothing prepared them for the reality of a classroom at Harper or Fenger.of course nothing prepared most of us either. Time will sort out the situation some will be gone by Christmas, others will become lifers.

  • This goes to show that the only real solution to our educational problems is genuine school choice. CPS can't do it, Charters can't do it, injecting real competition and letting parents have a voice in where they send their children is the only solution.

  • In reply to imfbsbn:

    What's "genuine school choice"? From the lay perspective of most parents, that is charters.

  • imfbsbn I think where we are now with Charters being an option for many helps some kids but actually makes things worse for others.

    The gist of the postings here (by those who know first hand) suggest that, fundamentally, the problem is that for so many students there are too many parents who don't care to make any decisions. More "genuine" school choice isn't going to help those students when choosing doesn't happen.

  • At Larry Hawkins (grades 7-12) virtually the entire middle school teaching staff was TFA. They did a great job. Classes were orderly, instruction was outstanding and the students were engaged. They were the toughest disciplinarians in the school. It's a fallacy that TFA teachers cannot hang with veterans. Many that I worked with put veterans to shame. I am very much anti-TFA, but this was my experience.

  • In reply to Anon:

    Wait, you just said TFA staff was outstanding but then you said you are anti-TFA. Which is it?

    If TFA teachers at Larry Hawkins were so wonderful why does the data not reflect that?

  • In reply to district299reader:

    The TFA teachers at Hawkins were the strongest teachers in the building. Many other factors having nothing to do with teaching affect test scores....perhaps most important among them living in a housing project and having to take care of your siblings because mom is on crack. In addition, admitting that some of the TFA teachers in this particular school were outstanding educators does not negate the fact that TFA is destroying the teaching profession.

  • In reply to Anon:

    Larry Hawkins is not the old Harper or Fenger.
    After three or four years they are veterans
    after a year i might even learn their names.
    But they come and go so quickly it is hard.
    TFA or not you have what it takes or you don't.

  • fb_avatar

    I am glad people are calling out Teach for America on this comment thread. In a city that is constantly laying off veteran teachers, why do we even have TFA? Some food for thought: "The Ongoing Sham of Teach for America: Part Two" Also, "Teach for America: The Hidden Curriculum of Liberal Do-Gooders" and Anthony Cody's blog has covered TFA from many angles: Lastly, here's a blog from a former TFA alum critiquing TFA and calling for a change: "Why I did TFA, and why you shouldn’t"

  • I am a strong believer in charter schools and the work they aspire to do! I have worked in 5 different charter schools across the country in some of the most dangerous cities in the country. I will say this, charter schools tend to have more strict discipline policies, which sometimes result in expulsions. With that being said, I have only seen 3 expulsions happen, 1 of which was when the principals nephew brought a knife to school, one in which a student brought a knife to school and threatened a peer with it and one in which a mother and her daughter were constantly stalking other students at the bus stops and on the way home to fight them. While, charter schools have higher rates of suspension and expulsion, I will say that charter schools take in MANY students who have been kicked out or almost kicked out of other schools. Often, parents know their children are on the verge of being expelled, so they withdraw their children and sign up for charters.
    I also think that many charter schools think TFA is the answer, and I completely disagree. Charter schools would be much better off in Chicago if they were not so political. People are being hired to lead schools simply because they are TFA alums. In other words, they never really received the proper training to run schools, but they can be trained because of their lack of expertise!

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