Another CPS Miracle?

Judging by local media coverage of Mayor Emanuel's weekend speech to the graduating seniors at Collins Academy, you might think that thousands of Chicago parents will soon be calling in favors to get their kids admitted to the small West Side public high school.

According to the Chicago Tribune, Emanuel lauded Collins as an example of a successful "turnaround" school. (The Tribune piece, however, does not identify the criteria that Emanuel uses to decide whether a "turnaround" is successful.)

ABC-7 anchorman Ravi Baichwal gushed on the air about Collins, calling it one of the city's "exceptional public schools." (CPS may beg to differ. According to its website, Collins has a "Low Academic Standing" and is currently "On Probation," though ABC-7 didn't let those details get in the way of a good story.) Baichwal's colleague Theresa Gutierrez explained that "[t]he entire senior class of Collins Academy graduated, and they are all going to college."

The Chicago Sun-Times wouldn't go quite that far, but the paper did report that "[t]he few members of Collins' graduating class who weren't college-bound chose to enter the military." (Collins' Principal Andre Cowling told Ebony magazine a few weeks ago that "every [Collins] student got accepted into at least three colleges...")

Emanuel has only been in charge of the city's schools for a little over a month, so he really can't take credit for the latest CPS miracle.

The guys who made it happen are Rich Daley, Arne Duncan, and the late Michael Scott. They're the ones who closed the old Collins High School back in the spring of 2006, citing declining enrollment and substandard test scores. Team Daley then turned over part of the building (as well as the management of the new Collins Academy) to AUSL, an extremely well-connected "turnaround"/teacher-training group.

Given the remarkable transformation that seems to have taken place at Collins, it's a wonder the local press didn't bother digging into the numbers. Had they done so, their readers and viewers could better understand the real magic of Renaissance 2010.

Daley's team said it closed Collins, in part, because of poor test scores. In 2006, 17.9% of the school's juniors met or exceeded state standards in reading, as measured by the Prairie State Achievement Examination ("PSAE"). Last year, however, when the newly minted Collins Academy graduates were juniors, only 14.9% of their class tested at or above the state standards for reading.

More troubling, though, is the fact that 108 Collins juniors took the PSAE last year. Perhaps ABC-7's Gutierrez was correct when she said that "[t]he entire senior class of Collins Academy graduated," but didn't she wonder what happened to the 20 Collins kids who took the PSAE as juniors and didn't walk across the stage with a diploma on Saturday? That's 19% attrition between junior and senior year.

And no one from the local media bothered to mention that the 88 kids in the 2011 graduating class started out as part of a freshman class of 133 back in 2007-08.

Do the math. Just 66% of the kids who were in that freshman class marched across the stage on Saturday. Where did the rest of those students end up? Was it their absence from Collins that helped make the "turnaround" a so-called success? Did any reporters think to ask those questions?

As for college testing, the old Collins kids averaged 14.4 on the ACT back in 2006. The current bunch managed to move the meter up to 15.2, but even with that slight increase, the scores are well below what ACT officials consider college-ready.

To be sure, the new Collins kids did improve their PSAE math scores. Back in 2006, only 7.6% of the school's juniors met or exceeded state math standards. During the last round of testing, 14.8% of the students hit that mark.

Student attendance is on the rise, as well. When Daley's team closed the school in 2006, the attendance rate was 81%; last year it was up to 90.4%.

In fact, rapper Nicki Minaj recently served as Principal-for-a-Day at Collins to help celebrate the school's improved attendance. (Minaj did not perform her classics like "Lollipop" or "Strippin' In The Club" at the school that day.)

A lot of Collins kids are heading to college next year, so it's clear there are some good things happening at the school. And all of the new graduates certainly deserve congratulations for their accomplishments to date.

But having a local anchorman declare that Collins Academy is one of the city's "exceptional public schools" does not make it so. Indeed, such a demonstrably false statement only undercuts the editorial credibility of all the folks involved with that newscast.

Think back to October 2009, when then-Mayor Daley declared that Fenger High School was "a very good school." His proclamation didn't make it so, even if reporters failed to call him on it.

Our new mayor and his hand-picked CPS chief seem eager to tie teacher compensation to student test scores. Next time one of them mentions the "turnaround" success at Collins, maybe some reporter will see fit to ask about the numbers.