Take 5: Testing opt-out, contract talks, curbing pre-k discipline

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As CPS officials wring their hands about whether to administer the PARCC assessment at all schools next week, parents in Chicago promise to mount a serious opt-out campaign and rally around an opt-out bill in Springfield. And they’re not alone,  the New York Times reports: “Almost every state has an ‘opt out’ movement. Its true size is hard to gauge, but the protests on Facebook, at school board meetings and in more creative venues — including screenings of anti-testing documentaries — have caught the attention of education officials.”

New Jersey’s teachers’ union is running TV ads against the PARCC, though union officials say it’s not because teachers will be evaluated in part on the assessments but that “teaching is being replaced by test preparation.” The CTU has also voiced its opposition to the PARCC and has voted to support the opt-out movement.

In Springfield, an opt-out bill filed in late January by State Rep. Will Guzzardi has gained a handful of sponsors, including Jaime M. Andrade Jr., Mary E. Flowers, Ann Williams, Kenneth Dunkin, and Kelly M. Cassidy — all Democrats. At an event last week organized by the parent group Raise Your Hand Illinois, Oak Park parent Karen Yarbrough said state legislators “have to stand up for our children and give us a sane and reasonable policy so we can support our children’s legal rights to opt out of this exam.”

2. Teacher contract talks soon underway … The Chicago Teachers Union and CPS are still fine-tuning their negotiating schedule, but CTU Vice President Jesse Sharkey says he thinks substantive contract negotiations will be well underway in March and April. The mayoral runoff election is April 7.

“I don’t know to what extent the political discussions in the city will get intertwined with contract issues,” Sharkey said after last week’s Board of Education meeting. “But a lot of school issues end up becoming politicized issues.”

Among the topics the CTU expects to bring up is hiring more school nurses and freeing up elementary school counselors from paperwork. “We have a proposal that will actually let them counsel, which will be good in a school system that’s plagued by violence,” Sharkey said.

The CTU contract expires at the end of June.

3. Reducing preschool discipline … The Hechinger Report spotlighted growing efforts to prevent pre-schoolers from being suspended or expelled, specifically by seizing on mental health awareness. The article follows an early childhood mental health consultant who travels from school to school arming teachers with new methods of addressing behavioral issues. Since 2005, when Yale professor Walter Gilliam unearthed the first data showing that preschoolers are expelled at three times the rate of students in the K-12 range, Gilliam and other researchers have held up mental health consultants as a powerful tool. In one study, he found that their presence can cut the number of preschool expulsions in half.

Already a required element of Early Head Start and Head Start programs, early childhood mental health consultation has existed in Illinois since the 2003 passage of the Children’s Mental Health Act. Still, the program is beyond reach for most schools in Illinois, which still sees high rates of suspension and expulsion for preschoolers. In Chicago, 2013 saw a nearly 50 percent increase in pre-k and kindergarten suspensions. In December the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services announced a $4 million expansion to early childhood mental health consultation programs nationwide.

4. Cutting tuition in half … That’s the radical plan coming out of National Louis University, according to a story in Crain’s Chicago Business. The university hopes to offset the revenue loss by bringing in more undergrads straight out of Chicago high schools. The lower price — $40,000 for a bachelor’s degree, down from $87,000 —  could also help CPS reach its goal of getting more graduates through college, which Catalyst wrote about in our winter issue.

Gaining more “true freshmen” could also flip the university’s 2-to-1 graduate/undergrad student ratio, Crain’s reports. National Louis isn’t the only university looking to bring in more CPS graduates. Crain’s reported earlier this year about how Loyola University Chicago is planning to open a special two-year college for poor city students as an alternative to City Colleges of Chicago.

5. On that note … The Chicago Scholars Foundation, which helps more than a thousand youths enter and persist through college every year, announced last week that it will be opening a new headquarters on DePaul University’s downtown campus. The space will be more than four times the size of its current location, which Chicago Scholars Foundation President Dominique Jordan Turner hopes will help make the organization and its programs more accessible.

“We see relationship-building as critical, and we see our space as a way of making sure we’re always staying connected,” Turner said. “We want it to feel like a college campus–a cool space to hang out, with all the tools and resources our scholars need right in our office.” This year, the foundation reached 350 new college-aspiring students. By 2018, they’re hoping to bring that number up to a thousand.

Founded in 1996, the Chicago Scholars Foundation began by awarding $1,000 scholarships to CPS high school students on their way to college. Since then it’s become more hands-on, matching students with mentors who help them all the way through the college process, from high school to career-hunting.