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Ed. Secretary Duncan dodges charter school issue during Chicago visit

U.S. EducatiSecretary Arne Duncan left speaks with senior student Stephanie Gil right after roundtable discussiwith local students parents educators BeniJuarez

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, left, speaks with a senior student Stephanie Gil, right, after roundtable discussion with local students, parents and educators at the Benito Juarez Community Academy in Chicago, Monday, Dec. 16, 2013. The topics included work at the academy and progress toward increasing graduation rates, as well as access for Hispanics to postsecondary programs. (AP Photo/Kamil Krzaczynski)

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Updated: January 18, 2014 6:30AM

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan came to Benito Juarez Community Academy on Monday to find out how the school boosted its attendance and graduation rates and climbed out of its Chicago Public Schools probationary status.

Duncan, who formerly headed CPS, heard from Juarez administrators, teachers, students and parents who described a success story based on a rigorous curriculum, dedicated staff, motivated students and supportive families at the public school near Ashland and 22nd that serves the Pilsen area.

The education secretary however dodged questions on a local hot topic, charter schools. Asked what he thought of CPS’ proposal to open 21 new charters after closing more the 52 regular schools, Duncan said he’s for anything that will improve results for students, but that the proportion of charters to regular schools was a local issue he has no control over.

“So many of these fights are the wrong fights,” Duncan said. “There is one common enemy — that’s academic failure. We just need more high performing schools in every neighborhood. I don’t think you should close one in favor of another. I think you need look at how you replicate fantastic schools.”

Duncan said the focus should be on how schools could improve, and pointed to Juarez, which is not a charter, as a possible model for others.

“Dropout rates are down and college going rates [nationally]are soaring, and schools like this are helping to contribute to what’s going on nationally.”

In a round-table discussion in a classroom in Juarez’s modern, gleaming campus, members of the school community passed a mike around, describing their take on the school’s turnaround.

Counseling department head Evelyn Sanchez noted that the school’s graduation rate was on track to hit 90 percent this year, up from 57 percent in 2010. The school also posted a 2 percent jump in its attendance rate, which was a major factor in getting off district probation.

The number of freshman doing well enough to be “on-track to graduation” will likely reach 100 percent this year, up from 57 percent, Sanchez said.

Test scores, however, remain below CPS average and are rising slowly. Last year only 20 percent of students met or exceeded state standards compared to a districtwide rate of 32 percent.

But students presented a more positive picture.

Stephanie Gil, a 17-year-old junior, said the school’s academic challenges and the leadership skills she learned at Juarez got her into a Harvard summer program for high school students. And when her family could not afford the tuition, the school found a way.

“They told me, ‘Stephanie, you’re going to Harvard this summer no matter what,’” Gil said, choking back tears.

Social studies teacher Daniel Michmerhuizen described an environment where that not only offers advanced options to students who want them, but also “wraparound” services the help students with problems both inside and outside the school.

“Students know that somebody in this building cares about them and their success,” said Michmerhuizen.


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