College Access

Low-income Indiana students could qualify for college scholarships — but most don’t even apply

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Students at a middle school managed by Phalen Leadership Academies, the company that will run the new Trix Academy in Detroit.

Decatur Township educators know 21st Century Scholars, a state-funded college scholarship program, can be life-changing for their students, many of whom come from poor families.

To encourage students to sign up by the deadline at the end of eighth grade, Decatur Middle School staff send parents letters, emails, and automated phone messages. They host school events and help families fill out the application, said Chris Duzenbery, director of college and career readiness for Decatur.

But the district’s sign up rate is still dismal: Only a quarter of Decatur eighth-graders who were eligible for 21st Century Scholarships signed up last year, according to the Indiana Commission for Higher Education. That’s down 12 percent from 2014, when 37 percent of eligible students enrolled.

Decatur has the lowest participation rate in Marion County, but schools across Indianapolis and the state struggle to sign students up. In Marion County, just 52 percent of eligible eighth graders registered for the program in 2017. Statewide, about 46 percent of eligible students signed up.

In other words, last year, more than half the Indiana students who were poor enough to be eligible for the scholarships missed out on the opportunity to have the state pay their college tuition.

Eighth-grade students signed up for 21st Century Scholars in 2017

Source: Indiana Commission for Higher Education analysis using free and reduced price meal eligibility data from the Indiana Department of Education. (Image by Sam Park)

Funded by the state, 21st Century Scholarships pay for up to four years of college tuition — which could add up to more than $40,000. To get that money, students must come from low-income families (with a maximum income of $45,510 for a family of four) and they must meet a host of eligibility requirements, such as maintaining a 2.5 GPA. Those requirements begin in middle school when students must sign up for the program by June 30 of their eighth grade year. If they miss that deadline, they lose the chance to participate.

For Decatur staff, the low signup rate is a bit of a mystery. “It baffles me to tell the truth,” Duzenbery said.

One challenge for the district is simply staffing. Decatur Middle School, which has nearly 1,000 students in seventh and eighth grades, has two guidance counselors. With so many students to work with, those counselors are stretched thin, Duzenbery said. That’s also common in Indiana, where schools have an average of 559 students per counselor, according to state data.

In recent years, most Marion County districts have seen increases in the number of students signing up for the 21st Century Scholar program. In Indianapolis Public Schools, for example, about 46 percent of eligible eighth graders had signed up in 2014. Four years later, the number of students enrolled rose to 65 percent.

The scholarships are also at the center of Indy Achieves, a sweeping new initiative from Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett that aims to make college more accessible to the residents of the city. The program includes a new focus on working with school districts to ensure students take advantage of existing scholarship money.

“While it can certainly be a challenge to connect with eligible students for the 21st Century Scholars program, many of our middle and high school partners in Marion County have seen improvement in terms of Scholar enrollment recently,” said Indiana Commissioner for Higher Education Teresa Lubbers in a statement.

For many of the children, getting the scholarship can be life-changing. That’s why staff at the James and Rosemary Phalen Leadership Academy were so excited when every eligible student in the class of nearly 40 eighth graders registered for the program.

Each year, the charter network that runs the school takes students on college visits around the state, said principal Nicole Fama. But since more than 90 percent of students at the middle school on the far eastside of Indianapolis qualify for free lunch, many of them know their parents cannot afford the steep sticker price for college.

Once students learned about 21st Century Scholarships, college “became a lot more real,” Fama said. “That makes those college visits so much more credible.”

Phalen, a charter school in its first year, had a small class of eighth-graders. But it still took months of work to get students signed up, said Fama. Like Decatur, the school told parents about the program through letters, emails, and personal calls. Teachers talked about it with students, and children brought the news home to their parents.

“Little by little, people would start calling, like, ‘Hey, my son’s making me crazy about filling out this really big application.’ We’d say, ‘come on in, and we’ll help you with it,’ ” Fama said. “That’s what we did. I mean, we literally walked people through it.”

All that work can have a huge payoff for families. Dietra Vaden, a parent who also works as a behavior dean at the Phalen middle school, said she had heard of the scholarship before, but she didn’t entirely understand how it worked or that it would be an option for her son, a rising-eighth grader. As a single mother, Vaden said, she thought she wouldn’t be able to afford college for her son. The prospect of 21st Century Scholarship changed that.

“We didn’t think we were gonna have this privilege,” she said.

Charter strike

Chicago’s second charter strike ends with pay wins for teachers and paraprofessionals

PHOTO: Yana Kunichoff
Teachers and supporters march in front of Chicago International Charter Schools' corporate offices on the fifth day of the strike.

Chicago’s second charter school strike ended early Monday with the teachers union winning concessions on pay raises for teachers and paraprofessionals that will put their salaries on par with educators at non-charter schools.

Under the deal, reached overnight after two weeks without classes, the union said Monday that teachers at four Chicago International charter schools, known as CICS, will see an immediate 8 percent pay bump. Over the next four years, their salaries will rise more substantially.

Paraprofessionals will be brought up to district pay scales immediately, the union said.

Students and teachers at the four schools, are managed by Civitas Education Partners, will return to class Tuesday. CICS oversees 14 schools in all a complex organization that includes multiple managers.

The deal ends the the latest display of the Chicago Teachers Union’s organizing muscle ahead of several high-stakes contract negotiations, including contract with Chicago Public Schools that expires in the spring, and several other charter contracts still in talks.

The contract will apply only to the four schools that have a union and were on strike: Northtown Academy, Ralph Ellison, Wrightwood, and Chicago Quest. But a spokesperson for CICS said Monday that the organization was “committed to equity” across its other 10 campuses and is in internal discussions about how the bargaining will impact teachers and classrooms at its non-unionized schools.

CICS had warned during the strike that it could face bankruptcy if it implemented all of the union’s demands. In a statement Monday, the network said that the issue of “limited funding” was an “unfortunate reality in public education.”

“In order to pay for such a significant salary increase, we will be forced to make certain cuts and compromises,” the statement said. “For example, we will likely need to limit the number of instructional coaches, assistant principals and other valuable support staff members.”

The tentative agreement brings to an end a contentious nine-day strike that started with picket lines and escalated late last week when dozens of teachers blocked the lobby of the Loop high-rise housing the offices of accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers. The board president of CICS, Laura Thonn, is a partner in the Chicago offices of the firm.

Friday also was payday for teachers, who received substantially smaller checks than they would have had they been working.

The teachers union and CICS said that the tentative agreement also guarantees assistants in kindergarten, first-, and second-grade classrooms; paid parental leave for teachers; and a slightly shorter work day. The tentative agreement cuts the workday by 15 minutes but does not reduce instructional time, CICS said Monday.

One sticking point was also class size. The tentative agreement sets a “goal” of 28 students per class with a clause that limits class sizes to 30. Overcrowding at district schools has been a point of intensifying discussion this year, too, with a new report from the group Parents 4 Teachers showing that more than 1,000 classrooms in kindergarten through eighth-grade in Chicago have more than 30 students.

“We have finally won a contract that our schools, students, and our staff deserve,” said Jen Conant, a CICS Northtown teacher and member of the bargaining team.

The tentative contract will now go to the broader union membership for a vote.

Charter strike

On Chicago charter strike, how far will the teachers union go?

PHOTO: Yana Kunichoff / Chalkbeat
Picket signs used by protesting strikers from the Chicago International Charter Schools, who were targeting charter network CEO Elizabeth Shaw on Feb. 11, 2019.

Chicago’s second charter strike has now stretched over nine days. Beyond picket lines and hashtags on social media, the Chicago Teachers Union has blocked a lobby of a Loop high rise, delivered labor-themed Valentines to Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s office at City Hall, and even wrangled appearances from the Rev. Jesse Jackson and Illinois Sen. Tammy Duckworth.

How hard will the union push and what’s at stake in its efforts to win a new contract for teachers?

Related: Multiple CEOs, multiple layers: Strike puts charter management under microscope

It could be the future of charter organizing in Chicago, experts say. A victory could “buoy a local wave of new charter school strikes,” said Bob Bruno, director of the Labor Education Program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. But if the contract doesn’t bring home the goods, failure could cast a pall over future organizing at dozens of Chicago charters — and untold numbers elsewhere.

Bruno expects in coming days to see increased pressure on members of Chicago International’s board, and possibly even a civil disobedience confrontation that ends in arrests. “They’ll look for ways to demonstrate that the ownership and leaders of this charter operator are not people who are invested in schools,” Bruno said, while “looking for ways to move the employer at the bargaining table.”

But the union’s strategy is risky.

Private employers can permanently replace strikers because its teachers are governed by the National Labor Relations Act, not the Illinois Labor Relations Act which protects public employees.

Chicago International, where teachers at four schools are on strike, has dug in its heels, arguing that granting union demands would bankrupt the network within a few years. “They want a compensation that is fiscally irresponsible for us to agree to,” said LeeAndra Khan, CEO of Civitas Education Partners, one of a handful of management companies contracting to run some of the network’s 14 schools.

The strike also comes in the final weeks of Chicago’s mayoral election. The union has backed Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle for mayor, but critics wonder if the union’s effort in maintaining the strike means it’s paying less attention to getting Preckwinkle into office.

But the union has tried-and-true tactics, Bruno said, including political pressure and escalating protests that have helped win tough contract battles in the past. It’s become more combative since the Caucus of Rank and File Educators, or CORE, won leadership of the union in 2010 with a promise to fight against educational inequalities.

That approach helped teachers in the 2012 strike, when thousands of union members went out on a weeklong strike that captured national headlines and pushed their demands beyond just wages and benefits to broader school-quality factors.

Union political pressure also worked in December, when 500 unionized teachers at Acero charter schools in Chicago walked off the job during the nation’s first-ever strike of charter teachers.

Along with pickets throughout the four-day strike at schools across the city, the union also brought attention to how the network had used its political connections to expand. Strikers stormed the office of powerful Alderman Ed Burke, who represents areas thick with Acero schools. Burke then called the network’s CEO and pressed for an agreement. The strike ended shortly afterward.

The Chicago Teachers Union is also known for its staying power in strikes. In 2012, teachers stayed on strike an extra day to make sure that most members were able to review line items of the new contract before it was signed, despite pressure from Emanuel to end the strike. That strike lasted a total of seven days.

In the case of the Chicago International strike, Bruno said the charter network may shoulder the greater risk. The network, which oversees 14 schools run by five charter management organizations, some of which subcontract management to a third operator, has argued that meeting the union’s demands for wages could push the entire network into bankruptcy.

A strong contract that benefits teachers could also push teachers at the network’s 10 non-unionized schools to push for higher wages, Bruno said. “That could be a problem for the employer.”

While the union may be using tactics it has found successful in the past, management of Chicago International doesn’t respond to the same pressures, organizers acknowledged.

If the campaign doesn’t win raises for teachers, or results in cuts to the classroom, Bruno said it could risk slowing down the broader movement to unionize charters. “It gives teachers across the charter school system pause. They are no less interested in having a collective voice but they will remain somewhat uncertain that the union is the appropriate venue for that,” he said.

Richard Berg, an organizer in the Chicago Teacher Union’s charter division, said that because Chicago International and Civitas aren’t political in the same way that Acero is, the union has shifted to focus to the network’s unusual management structure and its connection to big business.

“If you look at their board, it’s not education people or community people. It’s corporate lawyers and money people,” Berg said. “Our strategy has been to say: OK, well, what is going to influence money people to care about children? The morality of it.”

A federal mediator already attends negotiations between Chicago International and the union.  The network requested federal mediation a month and a half ago, and since then a representative from the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service has been present both at bargaining and in the discussions held independently on each side.

Both teachers and management blame the delay in coming to an agreement on the other side.

“We are determined to make these schools right for our students,” Berg of the union said. “We hope [management] will do the right thing sooner rather than later, because we have thousands of students that are missing school because of management’s intransigence.”

The network, meanwhile, said it’s focused on finding an agreement in negotiations to get back to the classroom. “We are focused on trying to end the strike so that our kids can get back in school,” Khan said.