Take 5: Contingency plans for strike, affording college, big loans, lead tests

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Mollison Elementary teachers picket outside their school the morning of April 1. CPS officials say if teachers strike again in May, they'll cancel final exams but not graduations.

Photo by Kalyn Belsha

Mollison Elementary teachers picket outside their school the morning of April 1. CPS officials say if teachers strike again in May, they'll cancel final exams but not graduations.

Strike plans. Chicago Public Schools officials say they would cancel final exams but still hold elementary and high school graduation events using nonunion staff if teachers go on strike in May. The schedule for distributing report cards would also be changed.

CPS Chief Education Officer Janice Jackson sent principals a letter last week asking that all grades be updated by May 11, DNAinfo reports.

“The only reason school could end early is if the leadership of the Chicago Teachers Union strikes before the end of the school year,” CEO Forrest Claypool said at Wednesday’s Board of Education meeting.

Claypool expressed optimism about the possibility of averting a strike, which legally could happen as early as May 16 — just over a month before the school year ends.

CTU Vice President Jesse Sharkey told WBEZ on Thursday that teachers likely won’t strike until September — giving the state more time to come through with aid — unless the district cuts teacher pay by removing the pension pick-up.

Affording college. Illinois was ranked 23rd for college affordability in a state-by-state comparison done at the University of Pennsylvania that analyzed the cost of college in relation to family income level.

The report cited years of increasing tuition, paired with the state budget impasse and higher ed cuts, as two of the main factors affecting Illinois. While financial aid here is still higher than the national average, it has been decreasing for almost a decade.

It also noted a racial gap in college attainment, with almost half of working-age whites holding at least an associate’s degree compared to 30 percent of blacks and almost 20 percent of Latinos.

Illinois’ ranking was boosted by its community colleges, which the report called some of the “more affordable in the nation,” where nearly half the state’s students are currently enrolled. But in Chicago, community colleges have had a tough year, facing decreased enrollment due to tuition spikes and proposals to consolidate programs, both of which would make it more difficult for students to balance schools with work and family obligations. A majority of City Colleges of Chicago students are of color, so that decrease in enrollment could widen the racial attainment gap noted by the report.

Big loans, bad jobs. East-West University, a private non-profit school just south of the Loop, is one of only 10 U.S. colleges where the average former student earns less than a high-school dropout, the Wall Street Journal reported last week.

The school heavily recruits low-income students from the South Side, at one point even offering students iPads in exchange for getting friends to enroll. But even with grants and scholarships, 80 percent of East-West students take out federal loans to pay the average $29,000 in costs not covered. Meanwhile, 91 percent of students don’t graduate with a degree within six years. In fact, students who dropout or transfer are hit with another financial burden – they have to pay back any scholarship money the school gave.

One former student called the school’s scholarship policy “about as crystal clear as a cellphone contract.” He owed East-West $7,000 of “scholarship” money after he decided to transfer.

Enrollment declined between 2008 and 2014, from around 1,200 to 550. Last June, the school was placed on probation by the Higher Learning Commission due to a lack of “appropriate support services.”

National test. The National Assessment of Education 2015 results, released Wednesday, found that only 37 percent of the country’s 12th-graders were prepared for college and could enroll without needing remedial courses, a decrease from 2013.

National Assessment Governing Board member Mitchell Chester cited the urgent need for better preparation for college and said in a statement that “too many 12th-graders are unprepared for the world after high school.”

The NAEP results also showed a growing gap between the top 25 percent of students and the bottom 25 percent.

Peggy Carr, acting commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, said that the purpose of the NAEP is to draw attention to these gaps, not to answer why they’re happening. But she did note that it could be tied to decreasing dropout rates, which can lead to lower scores since more students who aren’t doing well academically stay in school rather than quit; and added that with more students taking students in certain schools getting access to AP and IB courses that lead to higher scores.

Using data wisely. A Data Quality Campaign report released this week praised Illinois’ interactive report card website, calling it “purposeful in the design, communication, and engagement.” The site pools data from across the state, including data on college readiness and per-pupil spending.

But the DQC report urges states, including Illinois, to take data even further. Nationwide, DQC would like to see data shared more transparently, accessible to teachers, students, parents and after-school program staff.

“When students, parents, educators, and partners have the right information to make decisions, students excel,” said the report.

The report comes at a time when privacy concerns about data in education is popping up. In 2016, four states have already passed student data privacy laws.

Last Notes: The mayor announced CPS will begin testing water for lead in a small number of schools this year for the first time. Federal law does not require school districts test water, but other cities like New York and Los Angeles have done so voluntarily. In Chicago, most of the water lines are still made of lead.