Future of Work

Indianapolis makes a ‘promise’ of free college for some students

PHOTO: Andy Cross/The Denver Post

Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett unveiled a broad plan Tuesday designed to make college more accessible to the residents of the city — and help meet the growing demand for high-skilled workers.

The initiative, called Indy Achieves, will include scholarships for Marion County graduates to attend local colleges, grants for college students in danger of not being able to pay tuition, and a new focus on working with school districts to ensure students take advantage of existing scholarship money.

The program is relatively modest. If the City-County Council approves the mayor’s budget, Indianapolis will spend about $2 million per year on Indy Achieves. The program will also receive fees from university partners, and, potentially, support from corporations and foundations. Over the first five years, Indy Achieves is expected to give grants and scholarships to about 5,000 students and help about 90,000 more tap into existing financial aid.

But despite the limited nature of Indy Achieves, Hogsett described the program in sweeping terms during its unveiling before an auditorium of students at the Chapel Hill 7th and 8th Grade Center in Wayne Township.

“For every single one of you in this room, college is a destination not a dream,” he said. “The city of Indianapolis, your city, is committed to helping you along that journey.”

Indy Achieves grew out of a commitment Hogsett made last year that every high school graduate in Indianapolis would have access to college or other training. At the time, he called it the Indianapolis Promise, a reference to the Kalamazoo Promise, which offers extensive scholarships to graduates of public schools in Kalamazoo, Michigan.

But after a year of work, the Indianapolis Promise Task Force is recommending a plan that both provides small scholarships to students and tackles a more expansive list of priorities. In addition to helping high school students afford college, it gives current college students funding to complete their degrees and it aims to coordinate efforts across Marion County to increase the number of adults with the qualifications that employers are seeking.

In part, that’s because the mayor’s office realized that helping high school students go to college won’t be enough to meet the demand for educated workers in Indianapolis. As more and more jobs require college degrees or other credentials, the city needs about 215,000 more adults with job-ready credentials to fill those positions, according to the report from the Promise Task Force.

The program does include a limited scholarship, which helps students who already receive money from other state scholarships pay for the costs that are not covered. Beginning in 2019, students will be eligible if they receive 21st Century Scholarships or Higher Education Awards, which are both scholarships available to students from income eligible families. The new Indy Promise scholarship will pay for tuition, books, and fees not covered by those other scholarships.

Students must attend Ivy Tech Community College in Indianapolis or Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis to receive the scholarships. The Indy Promise scholarships are expected to be relatively small, but education leaders say that for students from low-income families, even a little bit of money can make a big difference.

“While to some $500, $1,000 may not seem like much, for others it’s that hurdle that they need just to get over that expense and not incur additional debt,” said Jeff Butts, the superintendent in Wayne Township.

Over the long term, Butts said he hopes the program will expand to offer more generous scholarships for students. “We see this as a first step,” he said.

The plan also includes a coordinated effort to increase the number of students in Indianapolis who meet the criteria for 21st Century Scholarships and complete federal financial aid applications. That would help students access significant financial aid that they often miss out on because they don’t meet simple requirements.

In addition to traditional scholarships, the program will also offer completion grants to help current college students who are not able to afford tuition. Those grants are expected to get the bulk of the money, about $1 million each year. Ivy Tech and IUPUI will pay fees to Indy Achieve for keeping students enrolled, which will also help fund the program.

Ivy Tech Indianapolis Chancellor Kathleen Lee said the college already offers help to students who don’t have the money to finish their degrees, but many people don’t realize it is available.

“We do forgive all the time, but students don’t always know that,” Lee said. “It brings a spotlight on the topic so that they know that they should raise their hands and ask for help.”

bargaining

Chicago’s Acero teachers vote 98% to authorize first-ever charter school strike

PHOTO: Yana Kunichoff / Chalkbeat
Members of the Chicago Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff protest before an Acero network board meeting in October.

Teachers at 15 Acero schools overwhelmingly voted Tuesday evening to authorize a strike, setting the stage for the first walkout in the nation by teachers at a charter network.

With a 96 percent turnout of the estimated 500 union-represented Acero Teachers, 98 percent of members voted to grant a strike authorization. The teachers union can now announce a strike date if contract negotiations reach an impasse, according to the Chicago Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff (ChiACTS).

Acero, formerly named UNO, is the largest unionized charter-school operator in Chicago Public Schools. Its contract with teachers expired Aug. 2 and was extended until Oct. 3. But talks have been stalled, union officials said.

If teachers do walk out, it could be the country’s first charter school strike, union leaders said.

At issue in the contract negotiations are higher pay, increased diversity among teaching staff in majority Latino schools, smaller class sizes, better special education services and teacher evaluations.

Chicago International Charter Schools teachers will also take a strike authorization vote Friday.

Changing course

Memphis’ only program for adults to get high school diploma gets lifeline from district leaders

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
Kennishia Pratts, 19, is on track to graduate from The Excel Center in December. She plans to attend Spelman College, a prestigious historically black women’s college.

Update on Oct. 30, 2018: The Shelby County Schools board approved this contract. 

The only thing that was keeping 19-year-old Kennishia Pratts from a job she really needed was a high school diploma, one potential employer told her.

So Pratts decided she would go back to school. She tried to enroll at a nearby high school, but was ineligible because of her age. That’s when she turned to The Excel Center, a charter school for adults and the only place in Memphis adults can get their high school diploma — not just an equivalent commonly known as a GED.

“When they told me I could get my official high school diploma here, I was ecstatic,” Pratts said. “I’d rather have my high school diploma where I know that I’m for sure going to get into college, I’m for sure going to get this job.”

With two children to support, “I have to make a living out here,” explained Pratts, who is on track to graduate later this year.

But now Excel is slated to close at the end of this academic year because it hasn’t graduated enough students on time and has posted low scores on state standardized tests, called TNReady. By state law, any charter school on the Tennessee Department of Education’s “priority list,” composed of the state’s lowest-performing schools, must close.

That’s why Shelby County Schools is stepping in to help keep Excel’s doors open to serve what Superintendent Dorsey Hopson called a “unique population.” It would no longer be a charter school, but a “contract school,” according to district policy. The state is also supporting the switch because “as an adult high school, the Excel Center does not fit the K-12 charter model,” a state spokeswoman said.

The school board is expected to vote Tuesday on a proposed contract between the district and Goodwill Industries that would set up a different set of expectations for adult learners.

The need for schools like The Excel Center is immense. Adult education programs are scarce in Memphis, which has one of the highest poverty rates in the nation. About 2,000 students drop out of high school every year, according to the city’s main school district. In addition, Memphis has the highest percentage in the nation of young people ages 16 to 24 not in school or working. Without a high school education, it’s that much harder to find a job. Those without a high school diploma are also more likely to end up in jail.

Adult learners come with different challenges than traditional students, school leaders say. They are more likely to need child care while they are in class, have inflexible, low wage jobs, and and need more help with academics because of long gaps in education.

State policy for schools like Excel is lacking, said Candis Dawson, the school’s director. Goodwill operates at least 20 similar schools in five states where there are different standards for measuring success at adult schools. For example, most adult learners missed graduating with their classmates. Since schools qualify for Tennessee’s priority list if the percentage of students graduating on time is below 67 percent, it’s unlikely the center would ever escape the dreaded list. (In 2018, the center’s on-time graduation rate — that is, within four years and a summer of entering 9th grade — was 8.8 percent.)

“It’s not a blame on the district or the state, but we were put in a holding pattern until key players came together to say this model wouldn’t work for us,” Dawson said. Otherwise, “we would automatically continue to fail.”

To address that, the proposed $239,000 contract for no more than 500 students would establish new metrics to gauge success. Students would still take TNReady end-of-course exams like their younger counterparts.

Specifically, the requirements to keep Excel open include:

  • 18 percent of students in an academic year gain their high school diploma
  • 20 percent of graduates within six months are hired for a job that pays more than minimum wage, receive a job certification, such as nursing assistant, or are accepted to attend a community college or four-year university.
  • 59 percent of students complete each eight-week term.

If the school fails for two straight years to meet those amended requirements, should they clear the board, Shelby County Schools could close the school.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
The Excel Center opened in 2015 as a charter school for adults to get their high school diploma.

Currently, the center employs 11 teachers for its 450 students and offers classes from 8:45 a.m. to 6:15 p.m., weekly bus passes, and free child care for children ages six weeks to 12 years. Younger children can also enroll in pre-kindergarten classes at Excel.

“They’re learning the power of education as they see their parents go to class,” said Chuck Molinski, the center’s vice president of education.

The school year is divided into five, eight-week sessions to accelerate students’ completion of credits. If needed, students attend remedial courses before enrolling in credit-bearing classes so they will be able to keep up with the faster pace. Students can enroll for a term, take a break for a term, and then return later, if needed. None of that would change under the new contract arrangement.

The average age of Excel students is 27, with the school serving students as young as 18 and as old as 84. The center also offers life-coaching to help students navigate services, such as housing and job placement. Every student is required to take a class on crafting resumes and cover letters, culminating in a presentation of a portfolio of their work. Job fairs, field trips to area businesses, and workshops on filling out college admissions paperwork is commonplace. Most students are enrolled for three or four terms before earning enough credits for a diploma. If a student has no high school credits coming in, it takes about 18 months attending classes full time to graduate. So far, the three-year-old school has graduated nearly 400 students.

A diploma, rather than a GED, is worth the extra effort, Molinski said.

“On the employer end it shows more of a dedication and devotion… Our students are having to take ACT, TNReady, and the civics exam,” he said. “It shows more dedication than just going on a computer and passing a test.”

Pratts, the Excel student, is now aiming beyond the job she was turned down before going back to school. She’s been admitted to Spelman College in Atlanta, a prestigious historically black women’s college. It’s something she never before thought possible.

“If they close [The Excel Center], a lot of people are going to be devastated because this school has helped a lot of people achieve things they never thought they would,” she said.