Five questions

‘Keeper of the Dream’ recipient on why teen students should volunteer

PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
Kingsbury High School senior Marlena Mireles of Memphis is a recipient of the 2015 Keeper of the Dream Award from the National Civil Rights Museum.

A senior at Kingsbury High School, Marlena Mireles is one of three Memphis-area students to receive the 2015 Keeper of the Dream Award by the National Civil Rights Museum. The award recognizes young adults who are making a difference and changing lives by helping to overcome conditions including poverty, hunger and addiction. Marlena actively volunteers with Streets Ministries as leader for education and outreach programs. For the last three years, she has worked closely with second-graders in the group’s after-school program that helps youngsters with homework and builds their reading skills.

Marlena spoke with with Chalkbeat soon after receiving the award last fall. She offers a message to other teenagers on why they should get involved in community service.

You received this award for the volunteer work that you’ve done with Streets Ministries, a Christian organization that works with impoverished youth in Memphis. Tell us about that.

Streets Ministries is like the building we use, and I work with (the after-school program) called Street Smarts. It’s for second-graders who attend Kingsbury Elementary School. We work with them on their reading skills and bond with them, and we share the Gospel with them.

What’s it like to work with second-graders?

They’re very jittery. You have to keep their attention, so you have to use voices when you’re reading or read a line, then they read a line to you, to make sure they’re understanding and following along. It’s hard … but I really like it. I see something in kids that I guess most people don’t see. I didn’t used to like kids because they were always so annoying to me. But I didn’t understand that sometimes it’s not their fault. They’re loud and obnoxious because they’re kids. You just have to love them.

What drew you to community service?

Helping people — knowing you make a difference in someone’s life maybe just once — it’s worth it to me. I feel like we’re here … more than just live to your own life, but to help others too.

What would you tell other teenagers about the power of community service, and why they should volunteer?

"If you sit at home all day and watch TV, you’re not putting anything into where you live."Marlena Mireles

They should do it to make a difference. If you sit at home all day and watch TV, you’re not putting anything into where you live. The community is just going to stay where it is. Like our reading level is really bad in this neighborhood, and that’s why we’re putting so much attention to it — to make a difference. But it doesn’t have to be reading. It could be playing basketball with kids and showing them that someone older than them cares.

How does it feel to receive the Keeper of the Dream Award?

I was really shocked. I didn’t feel like I did enough to win this kind of award. I just help with little kids. But it feels good to know you’re doing something. And it actually helps you. I didn’t know doing second-grade work would win me an award, but now I’m (eligible) for a scholarship called Leadership Scholarship Program. It’s full tuition so that allows me to have more open doors. You just never know.


The National Civil Rights Museum is located at the historic Lorraine Motel in Memphis where civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968. It is the only museum in the nation that gives a comprehensive overview of the American civil rights movement from 1619 to the present. Other recipients of the 2015 Keeper of the Dream Award are Antonio Scott, a senior at Houston High School in Germantown, and Emma Johnson, a sophomore at Evangelical Christian School in Cordova.

union power

Charter teachers won big in nation’s first strike. What now?

PHOTO: Yana Kunichoff / Chalkbeat
Teachers from Acero charter schools in Chicago protest stalled negotiations Oct. 24, 2018, as they readied to vote on authorizing a strike.

Some 500 unionized teachers joined in the nation’s first charter strike last week, and succeeded in negotiating wage increases, smaller class sizes and a shorter school day. Their gains could foreshadow next year’s citywide contract negotiations — between the Chicago Teachers Union, with its contract expiring in June, and Chicago Public Schools.

“The issue of class size is going to be huge,” said Chris Geovanis, the union’s director of communications. “It is a critically important issue in every school.”

Unlike their counterparts in charters, though, teachers who work at district-run schools can’t technically go on strike to push through a cap on the number of students per class. That’s because the Illinois Education Labor Relations Act defines what issues non-charter public school teachers can bargain over, and what issues can lead to a strike.

An impasse on issues of compensation or those related to working conditions, such as length of the school day or teacher evaluations, could precipitate a strike. But disagreements over class sizes or school closures, among other issues, cannot be the basis for a strike.

The number of students per class has long been a point of contention among both district and charter school teachers.

Educators at Acero had hopes of pushing the network to limit class sizes to 24-28 students, depending on the grade. However, as Acero teachers capped their fourth day on the picket line, they reached an agreement with the charter operator on a cap of 30 students — down from the current cap of 32 students.

Andy Crooks, a special education apprentice, also known as a teacher’s aide, at Acero’s Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz school and a member of the teachers bargaining team, said that even having two fewer students in a classroom would make a huge difference.

“You really do get a lot more time with your students,” Crooks said. “And if you are thinking about kindergarten in particular, two less 5-year-olds really can help set the tone of the classroom.”

In district-run schools, classes are capped at 28 students in kindergarten through third grade, and at 31 students in fourth through sixth grade. But a survey by the advocacy group Parents 4 Teachers, which supports educators taking on inequality, found that during the 2017-2018 school year, 21 percent of K-8 classrooms had more students than district guidelines allowed. In 18 elementary school classrooms, there were 40 or more students.

The issue came up at last week’s Board of Education meeting, at which Ivette Hernandez, a parent of a first-grader at Virgil Grissom Elementary School in the city’s Hegewisch neighborhood, said her son’s classes have had more than 30 students in them. When the children are so young and active — and when they come into classrooms at so many different skill levels — “the teachers can’t handle 30 kids in one class,” she told the board.

Alderman Sue Garza, a former counselor, accompanied Hernandez. She also spoke before the board about classroom overcrowding — worrying aloud that, in some grades at one school in particular, the number of students exceeded the building’s fire codes. (Board chair Frank Clark said a district team would visit the school to ensure compliance fire safety policies.)

While the Chicago Teachers Union aren’t technically allowed to strike over class sizes, the union does have a history of pushing the envelope when it comes to bargaining.

Back in 2012, when the Chicago Teachers Union last went on strike, they ended up being able to secure the first limit on class sizes in 20 years because the district permitted the union to bargain over class size.

They also led a bargaining campaign that included discussion over racial disparities in Chicago education and school closures, arguing that these trends impacted the working conditions of teachers.

“Even if you can’t force an employer to bargain over an issue, you can push them to bargain over the impact of an issue,” Bob Bruno, a labor professor at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, explained.

The Chicago Teachers Union also emerged from its 2012 negotiations with guarantees of additional “wraparound services,” such as access to onsite social workers and school counselors.

What's Your Education Story?

As the 2018 school year begins, join us for storytelling from Indianapolis educators

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy/Chalkbeat
Sarah TeKolste, right, and Lori Jenkins at a Teacher Story Slam, in April.

In partnership with Teachers Lounge Indy, Chalkbeat is hosting another teacher story slam this fall featuring educators from across the city.

Over the past couple of years, Chalkbeat has brought readers personal stories from teachers and students through the events. Some of our favorites touched on how a teacher won the trust of her most skeptical student, why another teacher decided to come out to his students, and one educator’s call to ramp up the number of students pursuing a college education.

The event, 5:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 13, is free and open to the public — please RSVP here.

Event details:

5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.
Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018
Tube Factory artspace
1125 Cruft St., Indianapolis, IN 46203
Get tickets here and find more on Facebook

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