prep school

In pursuit of college readiness, a course about "Assimilation"

Mitch Kurz leads students through a true/false quiz about the psychology of dreams.

Mitch Kurz is a math teacher and a college counselor, but the lessons he teaches don’t fall neatly into either subject area.

On a recent winter morning, Kurz asked students in his college readiness class to describe their dreams. On the board, he wrote, “What do your dreams mean?” followed by “Sigmund Freud” and a list of vocabulary words more typical of a Psychology 101 class: id, ego, superego.

Most of Kurz’s two dozen South Bronx juniors and seniors had not heard of these concepts before. But after a semester learning a hodgepodge of lessons from Kurz meant to ease the transition to college — covering everything from the dreidel game, to basic French, to the elevator pitch — students say they come into class expecting the unfamiliar.

The class, which Kurz calls “Assimilation,” is meant to ease the transition to college for students at the Bronx Center for Science and Math, a small school with many poor students who would be the first in their families to attend college. The school emphatically urges all graduates to enroll in college, and the vast majority do — but they suffer the same academic and financial challenges that low-income, first-generation students often face. Nationally, 89 percent of those students who enter college leave without a degree within six years.

Increasing students’ likelihood of graduating from college has emerged as a major frontier in education policy. The city’s approach is to toughen high school preparation so students have a better shot of handling the rigor of college-level work. Others, such as the KIPP network of charter schools, believe the problem lies more in students’ capacity to handle challenges and have developed programs to bolster traits such as resilience and “grit” that seem correlated with college success.

At Kurz’s school, academic standards are important, and so is character. But Kurz adds an additional approach.

A graduate of Dartmouth College, Kurz worked as advertising executive before cashing out— to the tune of millions of dollars — and getting involved in education. Already a trustee of Teach for America, he joined the New York City Teaching Fellows in 2002 and now serves on the board of the Harlem Children’s Zone.

Kurz believes city students fear college and sometimes struggle once they get there because they lack the vocabulary of the dominant college-going culture. At least at selective schools and schools outside of New York City, first-generation college students from urban high schools are a rarity, he said.

“We know adapting to the social environment of college, away from home, can be forbidding for tons of kids. [Alumni] would come back and say, ‘In my dorm room or in the hall or the cafeteria, these conversations would take place, and I never felt like I could participate in them,'” Kurz said.

So he designed a class to give the students something he thought they lacked: social capital, or, as he describes it, “All the non-academic stuff that makes up social intelligence, small talk, making conversation — even something as mundane as table manners. … Many young people have this, depending on their upbringing, but almost none of our students have it.”

Kurz’s recipe for social capital involves a crash course in foreign languages, religion, and schmoozing, in addition to other more academic subjects meant to introduce students to features of the liberal arts, such as sociology and psychology. His syllabus assigns each week a big idea, such as “happiness” or “social currency,” and breaks it down into wide-ranging content.

One day, students learned the rules of dreidel, the game played during the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah. On another, they simulated eating at a formal dinner party, using plastic silverware and plates to practice dining etiquette. This week, Kurz used photos from his advertising days to teach students the meaning of the golden ratio — a mathematical concept related to image proportions.

The curriculum can seem to careen from one subject to the next, but researchers say the approach has important value.

“The premise of the class is solid,” said Will Perez, a professor at Claremont Graduate University who studies college readiness. “The idea is supported by research that there are social adjustment challenges first-generation students face — particularly when they go to highly selective colleges and universities where there is a much smaller group of minority, working class students and a lack of information about how to function in college in ways that require familiarity with white, upper-middle-class culture.”

But Perez — who researches education, race and cultural capital — also cautioned that a course meant to explicitly introduce students to those cultural differences would necessarily walk a fine line between teaching students tools for adaptation and suggesting that their own cultural backgrounds are inferior.

The course title would suggest that Kurz aims to help his students become more like the middle-class children of professionals that he expects them to encounter in college. But he said his goal is not to press the students to change themselves but to equip them with the tools to engage in cultural “code-shifting” — altering their behavior based on where they are and who they are with — so they can fit into unfamiliar settings when they want to.

Past lessons in Kurz's class include "How to make an elevator pitch," and "What is Hannukah?"

It’s a mission that resonates with Lisa Delpit, an education researcher who has argued that educators should initiate minority students into the “culture of power” through explicit instruction — not only so that they can succeed in it but also so that they can ultimately influence it.

“I don’t want us to limit where kids can go,” Delpit said. “I think some of the things he’s talking about, students may or may not see in a college setting, but they certainly could come up in some settings. There is power in learning about other settings and other cultures.”

It is less apparent how the course materials may be relevant to students who do not choose to attend liberal arts colleges outside of the city, or do not participate in formal networking events. But Delpit say these subjects can hold value regardless of what students pursue after high school.

Luisa Diaz, a 2011 graduate of Bronx Center, said Kurz let students know right away that he wanted them to head off to college with their own identities intact.

“The first thing he said was, “In no way, shape, or form am I trying to exclude some cultures and include others,” she said. “And everybody in the class’s culture in some way or another was incorporated into the discussions.” For example, Diaz said, Kurz made sure everyone had a crash course in Spanish vocabulary — creating an opportunity for Latino students to share about their backgrounds.

Diaz, now a freshman at Hunter College, said some of the lessons have already come up countless times in her post-high school life.

“We’re studying in college right now the different stages of the human being — id, alter-ego, psychology,” she said. “I came into my religion class once and that was the first thing [the professor] put on the board, and I was the first one to raise her hand. Everyone was in awe, and I was saying ‘Thank you, Mr. Kurz,’ in my head.”

Kurz said he takes his own lessons to heart by challenging himself to leave his comfort zone — in his case, by carrying a grade-book stored in a colorful folder featuring the face of teen pop icon Justin Bieber.

“One of the ways you can make yourself feel more welcome in an environment is to make fun of yourself,” he explained to the students when they laughed about the notebook. “Everyone is more comfortable with people who don’t take themselves so seriously.”

Laura Rivera, a senior, said Kurz’s class inspired her to apply to colleges outside of New York City.

“It gave me confidence,” she said. “And it’s helped me connect all my classes together. At first I thought, maybe I want to stay in New York, have my mom do my laundry and cook. Now, all my colleges are ‘aways,’ with exception of CUNY.”

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.