Take 5: Phoenix Pact for college, Urban Prep union vote, dirty schools

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Urban Prep "college signing day"

Photo by Marc Monaghan

Here, young men from Urban Prep take part in “college signing day” at Daley Plaza in May 2014. Union members say more than a dozen teachers were unfairly fired in June 2015 for their union activities.

With all the drama at CPS in recent days, a very bright piece of news almost slipped under the radar last week: North Lawndale College Prep has set up an enormous financial endowment to help its graduates pay for out-of-pocket college costs.

More than $18 million has been raised so far to fund the so-called The Phoenix Pact (named after the NLCP mascot). It’s described as a three-way pact as “students commit to graduate with a B average or better and attend a college with a track record of successfully graduating minority students; colleges commit to keeping total loan costs manageable and to ensuring that 50% or more of their minority students earn a degree; and the Phoenix Pact Fund commits to cover any financial gap remaining between the cost of attendance and available financial aid,” according to a press release.

U.S. Department of Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who helped found the school more than a decade ago, was at last week’s announcement. “If you guys can start to prove there’s not just one amazing young person or one amazing teacher but systemically dozens of dozens of young people every single year (who) can graduate, and cannot just go to college but graduate from college on the back end, you start to let the nation know what’s possible,” he said, according to a WBEZ story.  “If you can create a model, the national implications are pretty big.”

Catalyst wrote about how unexpected out-of-pocket costs can make the already precarious college path even more challenging for low-income Chicago grads in our Winter Issue.

2. Speaking of college access … New data raises concern about diversity on Illinois campuses. Statistics recently presented to the Illinois Board of Higher Education show that black enrollment in Illinois public universities has fallen in recent years, according to a story from WUIS/NPR Illinois. The flagship, highly regarded University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has the lowest percentage of African-American enrollment at 5.5 percent last year. Overall, the number of black undergrads in public and community colleges fell from 82,633 to 78,217 in 2013, according to the story. Schools with the highest black enrollment tend to be those with less-demanding academic reputations.

Why the decline? Money of course is one issue. State funding for Monetary Award Program (MAP) grants, which are based on financial needs, has fallen; now, only about half of applicants receive any MAP funds. Interestingly, the story also notes that private, for-profit schools have targeted students in the black community. But there are deeper issues at play and, as the story rightly points out, a student’s college experience depends heavily on the quality of their K-12 schooling—which in turn depends on where they grew up. “So zip code can influence both whether and where a student goes to college,” the article states.

3. Unionized charters … The majority of teachers at Urban Prep Academies voted on Wednesday in favor of joining the Chicago Alliance of Charter Teachers & Staff (ChiACTS). However, that tally is not final because there are enough contested votes that could throw off the election. A total of 56 teachers voted in favor of unionizing and 36 voted against; the National Labor Relations Board will decide within a week whether to count any of the additional 21 votes cast by employees whose union eligibility has been questioned. (These include some academic counselors and department chairs.)

Still, organizers say they are confident that even if those ballots are counted, at least one will be a “yes” vote, which is all they would need to ensure a majority. As it stands, only 60 percent of teachers voted in favor of unionizing, the lowest percentage yet at any of the 29 schools organized by ChiACTS. Administrators for the charter network declined to comment until after the election results are finalized.

Meanwhile, teachers at North Lawndale College Prep who have also announced a union drive remain in conversations about what process to use in order to recognize a union and have not, at the moment, made any plans to have a vote.

4. Dirty schools … If you’ve talked with any CPS principal or teacher in recent months, chances are you’ve heard complaints about how schools have gotten dirtier since the district privatized janitorial services. This week Clarice Berry of the Chicago Principals & Administrators Association told WTTW’s Chicago Tonight that she thinks interim CEO Jesse Ruiz should fire Chief Administrative Officer Tim Cawley over the controversial contract. (The same contract that’s already cost the district millions of additional dollars in cost overruns due to someone in central office miscalculating the number of schools that needed to be cleaned.)

“He shouldn’t step down,” Berry told WTTW. “He should be fired. He shouldn’t be left off the hook.”

In an interview with Catalyst earlier this week, she said the Aramark deal is more troublesome than the $20-million, no-bid contract with SUPES Academy for principal training that’s sparked an FBI corruption probe and forced CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett to resign last week. “Everybody is up and arms about this $20 million contract,” Berry says. “But what head is going to roll over this one?”

Meanwhile, the Chicago Reader’s Ben Joravsky reports that teachers at Oriole Elementary filed — and just this week lost — a union grievance in to compel CPS to hire more janitors. The grievance said teachers were “performing the daily duties of a custodian,” including “sweeping, mopping, vacuuming, cleaning bathrooms and disinfecting play areas,” according to the story. Joravsky says a hearing officer ruled against the teachers “on the grounds that ‘there was no evidence’ that Aramark or the board ‘were contacted and made aware of the issues at Oriole’ before the grievance was filed. Had they been aware, they’d have cleaned it up pronto, the ruling concludes.”

5. Looming pension payment … Mayor Rahm Emanuel was able to get state lawmakers to pass a bill that allows Chicago to defer some of its payments to the police and fire pensions, but wasn’t able to do the same with the teachers pensions. Earlier this week, when asked by the Chicago Tribune, Emanuel declined to say whether he thinks CPS will be able to make the $634 million teacher pension payment due at the end of June.

“There is a financial challenge, and my whole goal is to now work with the state and make sure that the financial challenges do not undermine the hard work that our teachers, our principals, our parents and our students are doing academically at CPS,” Emanuel told reporters, sidestepping the question.

Chicago Teachers Union Vice President Jesse Sharkey told Catalyst earlier this week that the lack of clarity from Springfield on the budget has created very basic questions here in Chicago “about whether schools will have enough money to operate” next fall. That’s especially the case because of the strange accounting trick the school district pulled last year that now leaves the next fiscal year with two fewer months  of revenue.

The district has already asked for what would effectively be 7-percent pay cuts for teachers during contract negotiations, which are expected to last for months past the June 30 expiration of the current labor contract. “We’ve continued to meet and there has been some progress on all of the issues,” Sharkey says. “But the big overarching issues, the economics of the thing, that’s very hard to negotiate when everything is so murky about what’s in the future.”


  • BDH

    ChiACTS’ tepid 60 percent support at Urban Prep was the smallest landslide victory ever!

  • Anonymous

    Urban Prep brass fired many of the educators advocating for unionization and the most vocal proponent has quit…..the fate of the union vote is now in limbo…… the educators fired were among the most experienced and effective in the network……with consistently outstanding results. Proves that when their $$$$ is threatened (along with their personal pride) the leaders of Urban Prep will sacrifice their students to their own selfish interests, terminating excellent teachers (who just happened to support the union effort) is hardly in the best interest of the young men they serve!