Payton named top Ill. high school, 5 charter schools on thin ice - FOX 32 News Chicago

Payton named top Ill. high school, 5 charter schools on thin ice

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CHICAGO (FOX 32 News) -

At Walter Payton College Prep on the Near North Side, 16-year-olds Diamond Merrell and Skylar Ozoh performed an improv sketch in front of their giggling classmates.

In another classroom, Jamyah Hawkins casually worked on her freshman physics class work. Dduring lunch, groups of students gathered in a hallway chatting with friends, texting and playing Ping-Pong.

It was just a regular day at the selective enrollment CPS school. But it's not a regular year for the high school.

For the first time, Payton ranks as the No. 1 high school in the entire state, according to a Chicago Sun-Times analysis of school report card data released Thursday. Payton unseated Northside College Prep from the top spot it has held for 12 years. Payton had been No. 2 and No. 3 in previous years.

The focus on standardized tests at Payton is "somewhat minimal" Principal Tim Devine said. "We really believe if you just have a great curriculum starting from Day One of the school year, and you build that throughout the entire year and the student's four-year career, great standardized test scores will be a byproduct of great teaching and learning," he said.

Hinsdale Central High School claimed the top suburban spot — and No. 4 statewide.

New Trier Township High School was bumped down from the No. 4 spot to No. 6 this year.

The top elementary school in the rankings is also a Chicago Public Schools institution — Skinner North Classical School, which also took the top spot last year.

The Sun-Times analysis of results from tests taken this past spring shows Chicago, with 84.9 percent of its students from low-income households, once again claimed some of the best and many of the worst-scoring schools in the state.

Led largely by the district's selective-enrollment schools, Chicago grabbed 13 of the state's top 50 elementary spots — but also 38 of the bottom 50.

For its middle-school performance (sixth through eighth grades), Chicago claimed 19 of the top 50 — and 29 of the bottom 50.

And among the state's high schools, Chicago rated six of the top 50, but 42 of the bottom 50. At least four schools that took in students from closed schools, including Jensen Elementary Scholastic School and Lavizzo Elementary School, are among the schools that had major drops in rankings between 2013 and last year, according to the Sun-Times analysis.

Among the worst-performing schools in the state are several of the closed schools, including Paderewski Elementary Learning Academy and West Pullman Elementary School, the data shows.

The analysis was done using data provided by the Illinois State Board of Education, which released its school report cards Thursday.

"CPS is committed to providing every child in every neighborhood with a high-quality education, and to help meet that goal we must hold our schools accountable for the academic success of our students," CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett said in a statement. "While more work remains to be done, I'm pleased that on the whole our schools are moving in the right direction.

Overall, the state data shows elementary Illinois Standards Achievement Test scores declined from 82.5 percent meeting or exceeding state standards to 58.8 percent. The decline is due to the fact that the minimum scores needed to pass the test were raised, "to align with the more rigorous Common Core Learning Standards and give a better indication of college and career readiness," officials said.

Despite the overall decline, officials said students are making progress from year to year under the higher performance levels.

Byrd-Bennett also put five charter schools on notice saying they could face closure. She said the district is trying to uphold an academic standard for all schools.

Byrd-Bennett named the schools publicly, and said if they don't improve their academic performance by June 2014, they could be closed the following year.

The schools on CPS' Charter Academic Warning List are Catalyst Circle Rock, Catalyst Howland, Cics Longwood, Epic Academy and Uno Tamayo.

The schools have to submit a plan detailing how they're going to improve. The process is supposed to give parents a chance to find an alternative school if their children's school is failing.

Charter schools in Chicago receive public funding, but operate privately.

Eleventh-graders posted improved scores this year on the state's high school assessment, said ISBE Director of Assessment Mary O'Brian. That test was not changed.

At Payton, the 820 students study under a rigorous academic curriculum that includes honors and advanced-placement classes. Despite that tough course load, the environment is laid-back .

During lunch, the students can use their cellphones and listen to music.

In a freshman physics class, a student sits on top of her desk as she and a group of classmates collaborate on their class work.

"Part of the job of great teaching is getting out of the way of the kids," Devine said.

Inside Coonley Elementary School, it's warm, cozy and full of kids.

Though it's overcrowded — CPS' own determination— teachers and administrators haven't let that become a barrier as they teach more than 700 kids each day.

And this year, the school rose in the Sun-Times' rankings of elementary schools — to No. 21, up from 102 in 2012 and 388 in 2011. Its middle-school ranking also went up.

It's a school that has support from the community and parents and has been improving over the years, parents and the principal said.

The neighborhood school, where Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced his candidacy, has a gifted program that was started six years ago and currently goes to the sixth grade. But the principal doesn't think that's the only reason the rankings changed.

"Certainly they factor into it, but I don't think it's the only reason. I think our test scores are fairly solid both for our neighborhood program and our gifted cohort," Principal Gregory Zurawski said.

Testing, however, is not a focus at the North Side school.

"The assumption is if the kids are doing well and they're reading in class they'll do well on the test," said dad Sam Holloway, 45.

To relieve the overcrowding, an addition is planned.

At Owen Scholastic Academy Elementary School in the Ashburn community, uniformed sixth-graders practice reading music, fifth-graders peer into a tiny microscopes, and in a quiet room down the hall eighth-graders work on math problems.

In between the class periods, students quietly collect books from lockers and make their way to the next period.

Owen, a magnet school that takes in kids from all over the city, ranked No. 147 this year in the Sun-Times analysis of its middle-school children. That's up from No. 361 last year.

But its younger children didn't do as well. In that rank, the school is No. 843 — down from No. 678 last year.

The older kids may have done better because their teachers are specialized in core subjects and have advanced education in their subjects, principal Stanley Griggs said. Add to that the fact that grades 5, 6, 7 and 8 are split into smaller classrooms, based on ability, for math and reading classes, he said.

Splitting the younger grades into smaller classes is something Griggs is considering, he said.

Meanwhile, the Chicago Tribune is reporting that stricter standards for ISAT testing have triggered a wave of lower scores in elementary schools, especially in low income neighborhoods.

The Sun-Times Media Wire contributed to this report.

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