Future of Schools

4 ways to give people of color more voice in Chicago schools

PHOTO: Elaine Chen
Parents, teachers, and community members from all over the city gathered in National Teachers Academy for a racial equity summit

The teachers, parents, and community members gathered in the library of National Teachers Academy quickly zeroed in on a common issue their schools faced – the parents involved in their schools didn’t reflect the racial makeup of the student bodies.

Coming from all over the city, the 30-plus attendees arrived early on Saturday morning for a summit hosted by non-profit Chicago United for Equity, which meets with community members across the city to arm them with tools for tackling inequity. In Chicago, whites make up 10 percent of the student population, but half the teachers in the district are white and anecdotally, white parents tend to be overrepresented in parent groups and school governance.

Even at the event, attendees struggled with what strategies would be appropriate to bring back to their schools, comprising mostly people of color. Most of the attendees were white women, a small representation of the diverse schools they represented.

“We hold these events with the intention of cultivating a support network, whether that’s in one neighborhood, or across three neighborhoods that are facing similar issues,” said Niketa Brar, executive director of Chicago United for Equity.

Brar shared a framework for measuring and following through with plans for promoting equity. Representatives from the Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and education non-profit Generation All kicked off the day by leading the attendees to define equity and identify instances of racial inequity in their schools.

The attendees identified racial inequity issues common to their schools in an activity led by Generation All

With that framework in mind, here’s what the groups came up with:

Create more channels for getting parent input at Local School Council meetings

Parents and teachers from the Lakeview/Bucktown region started by looking at how parents can voice concerns to the Local School Council, the governing bodies of each school led by parent and community members. Even though there is no racial breakdown available of the councils’ membership, anecdotally, it’s often white parents who sit on them.

Nicole Abreu Shepard, a newly elected parent representative on Jahn School of Fine Arts’ council, said that Jahn has a majority Hispanic student population, but the involved parents are mostly white. Many Hispanic parents don’t attend council meetings and sometimes  “it’s seen as apathy,” she said.

“But,” she added, “there’s no Spanish translation, no child care” at the council meetings, and so it can be inconvenient for Hispanic parents to attend.

Shepard suggested that councils set up an online submission page for parents to type in their concerns and inquiries, which can be translated during council meetings, and also allow parents to call in to meetings. She said “these physically tangible changes in the short term make parent participation much more accessible.”

Focus groups aligned around race can further drive parent engagement

Community members of Peirce Elementary School and Nicholas Senn High School in the Edgewater/Andersonville region, both with majority student populations of color, proposed creating focus groups of parents of the same race.

Peirce parent Megan Brand said that similar to Jahn, “Peirce is a very diverse school but mainly white affluent families are involved.”

In intimate and private discussions, parents of color could more candidly discuss their ideas for their school and crystallize plans to present to the school’s administration.

Brar from Chicago United for Equity added that the discussions can be open-ended at first, but as parents begin thinking about taking action, “this engagement strategy on the front end can become a council or committee later on.”

Meet with community groups to offer a fuller picture of what their school has to offer

Community members involved with schools on the South and Southwest Side, Kenwood High School and Curie Metropolitan High School, focused on addressing the negative perceptions of their schools.

Alejandro Espinoza, a community representative on Curie’s Local School Council, said that he plans to meet with groups such as homeowners associations and neighborhood media representatives who often portray a negative image when they look at the district. He said “the stories they tell are not always the most factual.”

Curie is “more than an SAT score,” he added, and Curie holds many festivals and events throughout the year that these organizations don’t often talk about.

Don’t wait until the suspension to ask what’s wrong

Parent and community members of Bret Harte Elementary School in Hyde Park rallied their conversation around punitive discipline, which often disproportionately affects black students. At Bret Harte, which has a majority black student body, they said they’ve seen too many students receive suspensions.

Emily Nothnagel, a teacher at Bret Harte, said that the school should systematically track students’ misconduct reports and minor infractions, so school leaders can intervene and talk with students and their families before outright suspending students.

She added that this is important especially in elementary schools, where school administrations might not track student behavior as closely as high school administrations would.

College Access

How an effort to prepare Michigan high schoolers for college slipped through the cracks

The proposal to make it easier for students to earn college credit while still in high school seemed like the rare education policy idea with no natural enemies in the Michigan legislature.

When a bill was proposed in the Republican-controlled Senate, it passed in a unanimous vote.

Then it vanished — apparently pushed aside by more pressing concerns.

“Boy, we must have just missed it,” said Tim Kelly, a former representative who, as chairman of the house committee on education, had the power to bring the bill to a vote last year. “I can’t imagine why I wouldn’t have been in favor.”

Advocates of so-called dual enrollment are hoping their next attempt won’t meet the same fate. They want to lift a cap on state-funded college courses that students can take while still in high school. Dual enrollment is widely considered to be one of the most powerful ways to increase the number of people who earn college degrees.

In an inaugural address to the legislature, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer promised to sharply increase the number of Michiganders with degrees to 60 percent by 2030. That number currently hovers around 43 percent, putting Michigan in the bottom third of states.

Michigan is one of five states that limit dual enrollment; its limit is the strictest of any state. Advocates say that limiting students to 10 college courses in four years is unusual and unnecessary.

The cap is not the only obstacle preventing students from earning valuable experiences — not to mention college credits — before they turn 18.

It may not even be the most significant. When advocates worry that the growth of dual enrollment in Michigan is slowing, they lay much of the blame on financial incentives that give schools little reason to help students dual enroll.

“I think we should look at [lifting the cap], but we should also look at the funding mechanism,” said Brenda Carter, a state representative who serves on the house education committee. “How many schools in Michigan are limited in what they can offer their students because of funding?”

Schools are required to pay roughly $7,800 in annual tuition for students who choose to take college courses, and some have suggested that the state should help offset those costs.

But any new funding for dual enrollment would require a political battle. Lifting the cap, less so.

That’s why supporters of lifting the cap were so bemused when, last year, a bill that had garnered strong bipartisan support in the Senate never went to a vote in the House.

“That was really surprising,” said Brandy Johnson, executive director of the Michigan College Access Network, a nonprofit that aims to increase the number of students who earn college degrees. In a 2015 report, the organization called for the legislature to “eliminate restrictive rules” surrounding dual enrollment.

Johnson guessed that the 2018 dual enrollment bill slipped through the cracks in part because of its relatively low profile. It was eclipsed in the news cycle by an ongoing debate about school funding and by a political furor over social studies learning standards.

Several legislators told Chalkbeat they didn’t know that dual enrollment is capped.

Among them are Carter and Dayna Polehanki, a Democrat who was elected to the senate in November and is now a vice-chair of the Senate’s education committee, said she became familiar with dual enrollment while working as a high school teacher in Macomb County.

She thought it was good for her students, but said she wanted to learn more about the cap before making up her mind. She pointed out that if students decided to take courses at a community college that were already offered at their local school, schools could find themselves paying for teachers and for students’ community college tuition.

“I can see both sides of that issue,” she said.

The Republican chairs and vice-chairs of both the Senate and House education committees did not respond to requests for comment on Wednesday.

Advocates of dual enrollment say it’s worth sorting out the challenges that could come with allowing high schoolers to take unlimited college credits.

With the cap lifted, high school students could earn a diploma from a traditional high school and simultaneously complete a technical certification or an associates degree from a community college. Those students would save money on college credits, and they would finish high school better-prepared for college than peers who’d never set foot in a college classroom.

Lifting the cap “expands access for students, especially low-income students,” Johnson said.

She warned that not all high schoolers are ready to take a heavy college course load. If the cap is lifted, she said, the state should also make sure that students meet a “readiness threshold” — perhaps a minimum standardized test score — before being allowed to dive into college coursework.

But she added that after the bill passed the Senate last year, she believed it had a chance in 2019.

“I am very hopeful,” she said.

Kelly, who reached his term limit in the house last year, said he hopes his former colleagues take a second look at the issue.

“I would hope somebody does,” he said.

Preschool math

Illinois governor J.B. Pritzker plows $100 million more into early ed — but no universal preschool this year

In the past decade, as other states have ramped up their spending on early education, budget-strapped Illinois has fallen further behind.

In his first budget proposal as governor on Wednesday, J.B. Pritzker, a philanthropist who has contributed millions to early childhood causes at home and nationally, laid out a plan to reverse that Illinois trend with a historic $100 million bump for preschool and other early learning programs.

“I have been advocating for large investments in early childhood education for decades, long before I became governor,” he said, laying out a $594 million early education spending plan that is part of an overall $77 billion package. “Investing in early childhood is the single most important education policy decision government can make.”

Later in the address, Pritzker detailed a smaller increase, but one that some advocates said was a welcome shift in policy: He described first steps toward repairing a child care assistance program that was drained of families and providers during the administration of his predecessor, Gov. Bruce Rauner. The new governor plans to spend $30 million more to rebuild the program. He also will increase income eligibility so an estimated 10,000 more families can participate.

“These priorities turn us in a different direction,” said Maria Whelan, CEO of Illinois Action for Children, which administers the child care assistance program in Cook County. Compared with the state’s previous approach, “I feel like I just woke up from a bad dream.”

Pritzker’s otherwise “austere” budget address, as he described it in his speech, came 12 days after his office revealed that the state’s budget deficit was 14 percent higher than expected — some $3.2 billion.

The state’s early childhood budget funds a preschool-for-all program that serves more than 72,000 3- and 4-year-olds statewide in a mix of partial- and full-day programs. Chicago has been using its share of state dollars to help underwrite its four-year universal pre-K rollout, which has gotten off to a bumpy start in its first year.  

The state early childhood grant also supports prenatal programs and infant and toddler care for low-income families.

Pritzker pledged on the campaign trail to pave a pathway toward universal pre-K for the state’s 3- and 4-year-olds, and this budget falls short of the estimated $2.4 billion it would cost, at least according to a moonshot proposal made in January by the lame duck state board of education. The state’s school Superintendent Tony Smith stepped down at the end of January, and Pritzker has yet to name a successor.

But policymakers and advocates on Wednesday said the considerable $100 million increase is a step in the right direction for a state that has been spending less per student than many of its neighbors. According to the National Institute for Early Education Research, Illinois spent $4,226 per young learner in 2016-2017 compared with a national average that topped $5,000. Seven states spent $7,000 or more.   

“This is a big amount in one year, but also it is what we think is needed to move programs forward, and we’re excited to see it,” said Ireta Gasner, vice president of policy at the Ounce of Prevention, an early-education advocacy group

One item Gasner said she hoped to hear, but didn’t, was increased spending on home visiting programs for families with new babies. Spending on such programs next year will remain flat under Pritzker’s proposal. Home visiting has been suggested as one antidote to the state’s troublingly high maternal mortality rates. An October report from the state’s public health department found that 72 percent of pregnancy-related deaths in Illinois were preventable.

“Overall, we still have a long way to go to serve our youngest families and youngest children,” she said.  

In addition to the $100 million, Pritzker’s office reportedly also will add $7 million to early intervention services for young learners with disabilities and set aside $107 million to help buffer the impact of his new minimum wage increase on daycare center owners and other child care providers who operate on thin margins.

On Tuesday, Pritzker signed into a law a minimum wage increase to $15 an hour.

Illinois faces a critical staffing shortage of preschool providers, and several operators have warned that they face mounting pressures from staff turnover, increased regulations, and stagnant reimbursement rates.