The Mom Who’s Challenging CPS on its Data

As a parent of a student in the Chicago Public Schools system, Jeanne Olson felt frustrated. Olson works with data for a living – she's a qualitative researcher and consultant who lectures on organizational change at Northwestern University’s School of Education and Social Policy. But despite this background, Olson says she found it hard and sometimes impossible to make sense of the ways in which data drives district-wide decisions at CPS.

So, Olson decided to start crunching the numbers herself, on her own time, in her own way. She launched a project called Apples 2 Apples to help parents understand what's going on in the district. Her goal was to bring the data – rather than emotions or interest groups – to the forefront of the debate of Chicago schools.

Since its launch, Olson’s project has snowballed and attracted a lot of attention, including from CPS. She joins us on Chicago Tonight at 7:00 pm to tell us more.

Want a glimpse at how Olson and her team analyze the district’s data on the 54 schools slated to be closed or consolidated? The following is a breakdown of her team's analysis of one particular North Side school, Trumbull Elementary. Trumbull created their own assessment of their school, which has many self-contained special education classrooms. These classrooms have different maximum capacities than a general education population homeroom.

Apples 2 Apples Case Study: Looking Closer at Trumbull Elementary School on the North Side

According to Jeanne Olson, this is how CPS “sees” Trumball Elementary School compared to how another, program-based formula might “see” the school.

The first visual, CPS’ formula, only takes building capacity into consideration. The second visual, which Trumbull Elementary sent to the central office, asks the district to make accommodations for special circumstances, like the high number of self-contained education classrooms in the building. This formula takes into account both program capacity and building capacity. According to Olson, CPS denied Trumbull’s request.

Graphic by Jeanne Olson/Apples 2 Apples

According to Olson, CPS’ formula does not adequately account for special circumstances; for instance, special education or bilingual classes that need to be small in order to be effective. CPS considers any classes smaller than 30 students “underutilized.”

The following visual illustrates how Olson would change the formula for utilization at Trumbull.

Graphic by Jeanne Olson/Apples 2 Apples

Olson points out the CPS utilization formula does not always account for mid-year population changes in a school, which are particularly common at neighborhood schools, as opposed to charter or selective-enrollment schools.

“As students are added, using the maximum amount of students for the class [30 students per class] as the midpoint of the formula leaves no ‘wiggle room,’” she says. This leads “to more opportunities for overcrowding.”

We asked CPS to respond to Olson’s research, specifically whether the closings formula adequately accounts for special circumstances. CPS declined to provide a statement.

Graphics created by Jeanne Olson and Apples 2 Apples with data from LSC member at Trumball Elementary School.