Locked in a heated 2015 re-election fight, Mayor Rahm Emanuel got a boost from an international think tank that honored a community college in Chicago’s Englewood neighborhood for rapidly tripling its graduation rate.
The Aspen Institute — a favorite of business, political and opinion leaders across the globe — gave its first-ever Rising Star Award to Kennedy-King College.
“Some people wouldn’t expect dramatic improvement from a community college in one of the poorest neighborhoods of Chicago,” began Aspen’s letter explaining its choice for the $100,000 prize. “But Kennedy-King College, a college where nearly every student begins with remedial needs, has tripled its graduation rate in recent years, proving that what happens outside a college need not stand in the way of student success.”
But a Better Government Association investigation found that most of that dramatic improvement did not come from the community Kennedy-King serves, as the institute and the public were led to believe.
Instead, the bulk of the graduates who accounted for that jump in numbers came from the pricey and renowned French Pastry School located in the Loop, miles away from Kennedy-King’s campus, records show. The pastry program shares a loose connection with Kennedy-King, but graduation statistics for the baking school had never been included in Englewood campus numbers prior to 2011 — the year Emanuel first took office.
Joshua Wyner, the Aspen Institute official who oversaw the selection process for the Rising Star Award, said he and the selection committee were unaware of the pastry school’s existence or its inclusion in Kennedy-King’s graduation data until learning about it from the BGA.
“If fraudulent information was put forward, that would be troubling,” said Wyner, executive director of Aspen’s College Excellence Program. He said he was a member of an Aspen delegation that visited Kennedy-King during what he described as a “very rigorous” selection process.
Daniel Lentz teaches a class of students at Kennedy-King College’s Washburne Culinary & Hospitality Institute. This photograph was included in the package for the Aspen Institute’s Rising Star Award. The photograph of the French Pastry School’s graduation ceremony, seen up top, was not included.
“We take at face value the information they are sending us,” he said. “I am open to the fact that we may have missed something … One of the reasons we were interested in Kennedy-King was its location and the fact that it served the South Side of Chicago.”
Officials at the French Pastry School said they were completely unaware that City Colleges had changed the way it counts pastry school graduates.
“We had no idea, and it is upsetting that they would use our students in this way,” said Jacquy Pfeiffer, president and co-founder of the French Pastry School.
The Aspen Institute — whose current chairman is a generous political donor to Emanuel campaigns — announced the prize on March 18, 2015. At the time, Emanuel was fending off a strong challenge from Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, a Cook County commissioner who was critical of how Emanuel handled issues in the city’s low-income and minority neighborhoods.
At a news conference that day, Emanuel noted the seven-campus City Colleges of Chicago, of which Kennedy-King is a part, once “had the worst graduation rate in America even though it was the second largest.”
“Today’s announcement,” the mayor told the assembled media, “is another indication we’ve turned that around…I can’t thank the Aspen Institute enough for acknowledging Kennedy-King with the Rising Star Award.”
Mayor Rahm Emanuel announces the Aspen Rising Star Award at City Hall. (City of Chicago)
Neither Emanuel nor Juan Salgado, the City Colleges’ chancellor, agreed to be interviewed for this report. Emanuel also declined to respond to written questions from the BGA.
But Salgado’s office acknowledged in written responses to questions that pastry school students were not counted in graduation statistics before Emanuel’s time in office. “During that time, the French Pastry School was not using the City Colleges system of record to capture awards and therefore was not included,” Salgado’s office said.
“The Aspen Award was awarded to Kennedy-King in recognition of a host of improvements at the college, including the introduction of clear pathways, work with industry partners, and improvements in transfers and completions,” the response continued. “French Pastry School students are Kennedy-King College students and should be counted in the college’s graduation rate.”
On the day the award was announced, the mayor’s office released a statement noting the prize was recognition for “tripling” graduation rates.
An Emanuel spokesman dismissed as “preposterous” questions about the Aspen prize.
“The elitism underpinning your recent coverage of City Colleges is a shocking example of those who look down their nose at thousands of people who graduated from City Colleges having earned a degree and earned a ticket to the middle class,” wrote Adam Collins, Emanuel’s communications director.
The BGA has previously reported how the Emanuel administration’s emphasis on conferring more diplomas also resulted in City Colleges scouring its databases looking for students it could count.
It watered down curriculum requirements to make diplomas easier to earn, steered students to less rigorous programs through a telemarketing campaign and awarded thousands of diplomas retroactively to current and former students who neither requested nor wanted them, the BGA investigation found.
All of that led to boosted metrics that gave Emanuel ammunition to boast in speaking engagements around the nation of rapid reforms under his administration.
Critics say the mayor’s emphasis on more and more graduates ignores the traditional strength of the City Colleges system as a school that offered inexpensive transfer credits to students on the path to a four-year college, as well as adult education and high school equivalency classes.
As Emanuel has sought to overhaul City Colleges, tuition for part-time students was significantly increased and enrollment has hit a 25-year low.
Salgado, who took over as chancellor in April, has criticized the BGA reports as an insult to thousands of City Colleges graduates. He also said they ignored many gains the system has made even without data mining, relaxed standards and a manipulation of statistics.
Pfeiffer of the pastry school said it was unaware of the data controversy until contacted by the BGA.
“Students come to us from all over the world,” Pfeiffer said. “We have legends in our field, champions, teaching here. Now all of their reputations are being tarnished forever because City Colleges has made us part of this.”
The relationship between Kennedy-King and the French Pastry School dates to 2000, when the baking program reached an agreement to move into City Colleges headquarters near Willis Tower.
In exchange for use of renovated kitchen facilities, the pastry school gave City Colleges a piece of its tuition proceeds. Currently, students are charged roughly $24,000 for a six-month certificate program.
Pfeiffer said he was notified over the summer that the French Pastry School was being evicted by City Colleges, which is trying to sell its downtown headquarters building to make up for revenue shortfalls. “We are in a fight to save our lives, and now this?” he said. “This is not right.”
The contract between the French Pastry School and City Colleges runs through January 2019, he said.
On paper, City Colleges assigned the pastry school to Kennedy-King, which already operated a separate cooking program at the Englewood campus known as the Washburne Culinary & Hospitality Institute. Washburne produces far fewer graduates than the pastry school.
The BGA investigation found City Colleges didn’t count graduates from the pastry school until 2011, which was the first full year of a massive reorganization at City Colleges called Reinvention.
As part of the retooling, Emanuel consolidated the seven campuses into quasi-magnet schools offering vocational studies with a goal to increase the number of diplomas that could lead to jobs.
It was during that sweeping push to improve results that City Colleges first began counting pastry school graduates.
From 2009 to 2013 — the year-to-year comparison used by Aspen in conferring its award — Kennedy-King tripled its reported graduation rate from 8.3 percent to 25.9 percent. In 2009, City Colleges reported no graduates from the French Pastry School but did in 2013.
Wyner, an Aspen vice president, said the institute’s privacy policies prevent him from disclosing the contents of submissions made by City Colleges that gained Kennedy-King the prize.
He did acknowledge, however, that those submissions included many statistics and “data tables.” He said significant weight was given to Kennedy-King’s reported increase in graduation rates.
Wyner said the institute has never before been faced with questions about the underpinnings of its awards. But he promised that BGA reporting would be given “a careful read and consideration.”
Serving as vice chairman of the Aspen board of trustees in 2015 was James Schine Crown, president of his family’s Chicago-based investment firm Henry Crown & Assoc. and heir to the General Dynamics Corp. fortune.
Crown, his family and executives from his company have contributed more than $500,000 to Emanuel’s campaign funds since 2001, according to federal and state reports.
“I can tell you unequivocally that there was no discussion with Rahm about this, and board members have nothing to do with the programs that are offered,” said Crown, who is now chairman of the Aspen board. “I have had no conversations about it, and frankly I had no idea this award even existed until you just told me about it.
“It suggests to me you are looking to make a connection where there is none,” he said.
Wyner said board members do not set prize guidelines and have no involvement in the selection process.
A BGA analysis of federal data and internal City Colleges’ records shows the pastry school accounted for nearly half of the 190 graduates Kennedy-King reported for 2013. Without pastry school students, the Kennedy-King graduation rate that year would have dropped to about 14 percent, the analysis found.
City Colleges submitted 91 pastry school graduates to be counted in the 2013 graduation rate, records show.
Federal guidelines on counting community college graduates are complicated. But essentially, they are designed to track the progress of groups of full-time students who start at the same time and have earned diplomas within three years.
Under that rubric, all 2013 Kennedy-King graduates took their first classes in the fall of 2010, even if they finished degree work in a shorter time frame. Indeed, pastry school students counted as 2013 graduates would almost surely have completed their program years earlier.
For 2013, Kennedy-King reported 190 graduates in total, all students who began in the fall semester of 2010. Subtract the 91 pastry school graduates from that number and the school’s official graduation rate of 26 percent gets sliced nearly in half to 14 percent.
City Colleges questioned the accuracy of the BGA analysis, saying it is possible state and federal regulators removed some pastry school graduates from their official list of graduates. For that reason, City Colleges claimed it cannot be sure all the graduates it submitted were counted.
Through internal sources at City Colleges, the BGA obtained a complete list of French Pastry school students who were counted in the 2014 graduating class — the subsequent year to the one that led to the Aspen prize.
On that later list were nearly three dozen students with previous college degrees, something that under federal rules would disqualify them from being included in graduation statistics.
It could not be determined whether that failure to properly vet graduates also extended to the 2013 class.
The Rising Star prize given Kennedy-King was a first for Aspen, but Wyner said its creation had been in discussion for almost a year.
Kennedy-King had been listed among 10 finalists for a $1 million Community College Excellence prize long handed out by Aspen. While it didn’t win that, Wyner said the Rising Star Award was designed to recognize the college that demonstrated the most rapid improvements among the finalists who were edged out for the bigger prize.
At Kennedy-King, Wyner said, that improvement centered largely on graduation rates and diplomas, although other metrics were considered such as student stewardship, transfer rates to other college programs and how well changes have served the minority community.
The award letter from Aspen’s Washington headquarters praised the school’s rocketing grad rates, beefed-up core of faculty advisors and a “new sense of accountability that reaches all the way to the president.”