Take 5: Cheetos at lunch, Parent U, don’t become a teacher

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One of the best-sellers in CPS vending machines are "reformulated" Cheetos.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

One of the best-sellers in CPS vending machines are "reformulated" Cheetos.

Banned under new nutritional laws, some beloved junk food items have found their way back in school by cutting back salt and fat and swapping enriched flours with whole grains. That’s according to a report by WBEZ’s Monica Eng, who found that the top sellers at some CPS vending machines are  “reformulated” Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, which come in a smaller bag than those typically found at a convenience store but still list nearly 30 ingredients and six artificial colors.

The head of nutrition services told WBEZ she had no idea schools were selling those snacks, as the district prohibited “reformulated” snacks a year ago. But these kinds of food items appeared on two separate lists of district-approved snacks. The problem with “reformulated” snacks, experts tell WBEZ, is that the rules encourage companies to hit certain nutrient numbers instead of providing real food.

New York University nutrition professor Marion Nestle said, “If you set up nutrition standards, the food industry can do anything to meet those standards and this is a perfect example of that…So this is a better-for-you junk food. And, of course, the question is, is that a good choice? And no, of course, it’s not.”

2. Something we didn’t know….is that CPS has set up 31 “parent engagement centers” since Mayor Rahm Emanuel took office. Essentially, these are rooms in community schools that have been outfitted with computers and other resources (paid for by Microsoft and the United Way) that help parents and guardians improve their computer savvy and other skills. Now, as Emanuel’s campaign is in full gear, CPS announced that it is upgrading the concept at three schools with “Parent Universities,” that will provide programs in areas such as digital video training and GED preparation, the latter through a City Colleges partnership. The three schools are Clemente High in Humboldt Park, Miles Davis Magnet Elementary in Englewood and Spencer Technology Elementary in Austin. The Sun-Times had a story this weekend on the new program and one parent who is working on her GED through the program.

What’s interesting, though, is that CPS is touting the fact that parents can earn “digital badges” for various parent engagement activities, such as going to report-card pick-up, volunteering at a school function or even just signing up for Parent University. CPS has promoted digital badges to teens. In 2013, Chicago became the first city in the nation to launch a citywide pilot of the badge system for teens, promoting them as a way to show colleges and potential employers that they have mastered certain skills. Though the badges parents earn for volunteering or picking up report cards may not hold much weight with potential employers, badges can provide “access to special events and opportunities” through the City of Learning initiative.

3. Dead last in equity….Efforts to change Illinois’ school funding formula have failed time after time. But a proposal by state Sen. Andy Manar (D-Bunker Hill) is still alive and a new analysis shows hundreds more school districts would win than lose under the plan, according to the Quad City Times, which reports that 417 downstate school districts would gain funding, compared with 123 that would lose money; 50 districts in the Chicago area would gain money, while 11 would lose.

Manar, who’s a freshman lawmaker, crafted a proposal last year to re-distribute state aid to districts based on financial need. Predictably, that caused an outcry from wealthy districts that stood to lose money. As the Times writes, “(T)he bulk of the districts losing money are in Chicago’s wealthier suburbs, signaling the same issues remain in play as those that hampered the southern Illinois Democrat’s plan last year.” Previous proposals to revamp school funding have never gotten much traction in Springfield, despite Illinois’ well-documented inequities in school spending between poor and wealthy districts.

Those inequities are documented yet again by the Education Trust in a new report that ranks Illinois dead-last among 50 states in spending equity. “By far the largest gap is in Illinois, where the highest poverty districts receive nearly 20 percent less state and local funding than the lowest poverty districts,” the report states. Other Midwestern states–Ohio, Minnesota and Indiana–were at the opposite end of the spectrum, spending about 12 percent to 22 percent more in poor districts than in wealthy ones. Michigan was the only other low-ranked Midwestern state, at No. 45.

4. On that note … Here’s one place where the poorest schools have more money success than the richest: raising money online through DonorsChoose.org. A recent NPR report finds that the site, which was started 15 years ago by a former social studies teacher, has helped teachers raise more than $310 million since its inception. “The overwhelming majority of students benefiting from projects posted on DonorsChoose.org are low-income. The poorest schools also have a higher success rate when it comes to funding their projects — 70 percent versus the 66 percent average among all projects.”

The most successful fundraising campaigns are those for books and other efforts to improve literacy, and the most requested books between 2002 and 2014 were the “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” and “Wonder.” Last year, at least one teacher at 60 percent of all Illinois public schools successfully funded at least one project using the site, NPR reports. That’s nearly double the number of schools since 2010.

One problem with this kind of fundraising, though, is that “it can also be a lot of work: From creating and publicizing the online request to following up a successful campaign with personalized thank-you notes from every student.”

5. Don’t be a teacher…. says an award-winning teacher. Nancie Atwell, a 42-year veteran who recently won a $1 million international prize for teaching, says that prospective teachers shouldn’t go into the profession–at least, in public schools, according to Education Week.

Atwell, who teaches reading and writing, said the Common Core Standards and emphasis on testing inhibit teachers’ creativity in public schools and could be contributing to high attrition rates. “With respect to language arts in particular, Atwell said that schools’ emphasis on test preparation leaves little room to emphasize the benefits of reading and writing. “It’s just become a series of rig—not even rigorous, almost ridiculous exercises that don’t have any connection with the enjoyment of stories or the exercise of self-expression,” she said.”

Atwell teaches at the nonprofit Center for Teaching and Learning in Maine. The award from the Varkey Foundation has been lauded by Bill Gates, a champion of the Common Core and whose foundation has supported its creation. A statement from Atwell, issued through the Varkey Foundation,  backtracked somewhat: “Teaching has been my pride and pleasure for more than four decades. I encourage anyone anywhere who enjoys working with young people to consider it as a career,” she said.

Photo: Cheese snacks/shutterstock