In the Classroom

With its jackpot $28.5 million grant, Warren Township pushes career programs, online learning and teacher training

PHOTO: James Vaughn
Davoni White (left) and Chris Patterson (right) rush to set up a camera in one minute during an advanced studio production class at Warren Central High School. The FrontRunner studio (pictured here) was funded by the Race to the Top grant.

Three years ago, Warren Township got a lucky break when it was one of just 16 school districts nationwide to win a big federal Race to the Top grant.

The district walked away with $28.5 million for its goal of more closely connecting what its schools teach to the individual needs of its students.

The district has used the money to try out a host of new ideas. It added state-of-the-art facilities to the career center at its high school, added a computerized system to keep students learning even if they are kicked out of school and poured money into training teachers.

But the district isn’t stopping there. Before the grant dries up in 2017, Warren hopes to use the money to add “blended learning,” a system that mixes teacher-led lessons with individual work on the computer, to all of its elementary, intermediate and middle schools.

“The grant has helped us build the wings of the plane before we take off rather than try to take that plane off and build the wings at the same time like a lot of districts around us are forced to do,” said Ryan Russell, assistant superintendent of educator effectiveness.

Warren Township has the fifth largest enrollment of the 11 Marion County school districts with 12,100 students, many of which face the same learning barriers that students in other high-poverty districts battle.

More than 70 percent of students come from families that are poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, which for a family of four means less than $43,500 in annual income. In IPS, by comparison, about 75 percent of students qualify, and statewide the figure is about 49 percent.

Three of its nine elementary schools earned a D letter grade from the state for low test scores, including the once high-rated Sunny Heights Elementary School. Two of its three middle schools earned a D. Warren Township High School earned a C on its last state report card.

The grant was intended to spark innovation in school districts with these sorts of challenges and help them turn the corner to better student outcomes. Race to the Top school district winners were expected to find ways to personalize learning for students, especially using technology, that other districts around the country could learn from.

“The goal with Race to the Top was to really gain some momentum and spearhead this effort to personalize learning for students,” Russell said. “We’re not talking about a magnet school. We’re not talking about just one school out of our 18 sites. We’re talking about, as a district, committing to personalized learning.”

One example are changes at the Walker Career Center, which is attached to the high school.

A ‘real-world’ experience

Gabbi Mitchell stood shoulder to shoulder with professionals and did exactly the same work to produce videos during the VEX Robotics competition in November at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.

She’s not getting paid, but you could argue her work is semi-professional. Mitchell has a job with a tiny student-run video production company called FrontRunner, which is housed at the career center.

Last week, FrontRunner was gearing up for its second time covering Gen Con, an annual gaming convention that takes over Downtown Indianapolis each August.

The school district spent $1.7 million from the Race to the Top grant to build a state-of-the-art studio equipped with a green screen, seven high definition cameras and a production trailer for students working in the field.

The idea for FrontRunner originated with Dennis Jarrett, who spent about a decade working in television at RTV6 before transitioning to teaching.

Students were doing live broadcasts and “real journalism” before the grant, Jarrett said. But he wanted to add a layer to the real-world experience they were getting. Now, organizations like Gen Con and VEX Robotics actually pay FrontRunner to produce videos during their events – money Jarrett hopes will keep the program going once the grant runs out.

“After this year, we have to be self-sufficient,” Jarrett said. “So what we’re able to do with the monies that we’re making is ensure that we can sustain this after the grant is done.”

For the students, Jarrett teaches video production classes during the school day. After school, they apply what they’ve learned in their work for FrontRunner.

“We’re outfitted on the level of any other production company or TV facility here in Indianapolis,” Jarrett said.

The Walker Career Center is home to more than 20 career-focused electives, from engineering to cosmetology. There is a fully functioning restaurant on site where students create, prepare and serve the food.

“It exposes these kids to something while they’re in high school and maybe it’s not for them,” Jarrett said. “Maybe they don’t like the fact that TV isn’t all glamour. Maybe they don’t like the fact that they have to spend four hours setting equipment up. So it exposes them to a career path while they’re still in a position to make a decision – they can change.”

Mitchell, 17, said she hopes to study broadcast journalism at Syracuse University – one of the best programs in the country – and would love to work at a network like CNN as an anchor or correspondent.

“I can do anything around here,” Mitchell said, sitting in the studio’s control room. “I can be on camera. I can use the camera. I can edit. I can do replay. But the thing I enjoy the most is capturing a story. I feel like everybody has a story and it just takes the right person to see it.”

An alternative to expulsion

By the end of the 2013-14 school year, Warren Township schools had expelled nearly 70 students and Superintendent Dena Cushenberry was frustrated.

The district needed an alternative to kicking kids out.

“My charge was, ‘How do we keep these students in school?’” Cushenberry said. “Maybe not in the school environment, per say. But how do we continue their education even though they’re not in the four walls of Warren Central High School or a middle school?”

Now they have an alternative thanks, again, to Race to the Top.

Today, when students are suspended and facing expulsion, the district’s Director of eLearning John Keller offers them a choice: stay in school by agreeing to take online courses or continue down the road to expulsion.

No longer are those students missing out on an education. For some of them, they’re even making it to graduation.

Since the program launched in October, 26 students have agreed to take online classes rather than be expelled. Two graduated on time this past spring. Seven earned credits.

But not doing the work is equivalent to agreeing to the expulsion.

“It doesn’t always work,” Cushenberry said. “You have some students that don’t want that. We try to make sure that everyone still has access to an education even when they think they don’t want it.”

Most of their school work can be completed at home, but the students take all of their tests at the district’s central office. Some students find the program suits them and they communicate with Keller often, he said. But he doesn’t hear from others after a mandatory orientation.

“The ball is very much in the student’s court,” Keller said. “We’re saying, ‘Hey, this track goes over the cliff to expulsion and this track stays on the rails. But it’s pretty much all you now in the sense that this is your time to be an adult about your learning and it’s going to take some initiative. I’m not going to call you and get you out of bed.”

A new kind of teacher

"I personally believe the best way we can support our students is to invest in our teachers. And so the biggest positive impact I believe Race to the Top has had is truly giving us an opportunity to invest far more in them than we ever could have imagined without it."Ryan Russell

Making greater use of online learning has also meant more learning for teachers, some of whom are more adept at using new technologies for instruction than others.

In the past two years, the district has paid for more than 50,000 training hours for its teachers and administrators.

“I personally believe the best way we can support our students is to invest in our teachers,” Russell said. “And so the biggest positive impact I believe Race to the Top has had is truly giving us an opportunity to invest far more in them than we ever could have imagined without it.”

Most of the money from the grant has been spent, one way or another, on the more than 700 teachers in the district.

Russell said Warren wants students working at their own paces and seeing real-time results.

In many cases, that means teachers have to change the way they teach, which is the most challenging part of the process, he said.

“We as teachers were trained to kind of command and control a classroom – to be up front, a sage on the stage,” Russell said. “But personalization and blended (learning) really requires you to shift your role into more of a facilitator and a coach.”

Younger children, the district has learned, actually have a lot of understanding about how technological tools work and quickly learn how to use them for school work. So the district wants to connect that understanding directly to their lessons.

“We know that kids right now in kindergarten – all they know is technology,” Cushenberry said. “We had to figure out, ‘How do you make education relevant for the students of this generation?’”

Future of Schools

CPS $1 billion capital budget hearings: Questions, demands, and mixed feelings

PHOTO: Elaine Chen
Community members gave passionate testimonies at a public hearing at Malcolm X College for the proposed capital budget.

Chicago Public Schools surprised many when it dropped its biggest facility spending plan a few weeks ago with a big “B”—that stands for billion—in the headline.

Considering that the district had planned to spend less than $200 million on capital needs for the 2018-2019 school year, this plan represents a five-fold increase. It relies largely on bonds to pay for building improvements and introduces new schools amid steadily shrinking enrollment, mostly in areas around gentrifying neighborhoods.

Divergent opinions surrounding the capital budget emerged at three concurrent community meetings CPS held Thursday night at City Colleges sites around Chicago: Malcolm X, Harry S. Truman, and Kennedy-King. The Chicago Board of Education is scheduled to vote on the district’s $7.58 billion budget, including the capital plan, on July 25.

At the Malcolm X meeting, CPS Senior Policy Advisor Cameron Mock presented a map showing capital budget projects distributed evenly throughout the city, but, as CPS Chief Financial Officer Jennie Bennett acknowledged, “not all projects are equal.”

Bennett explained that “the allocation of these projects were really in large part due to feedback about need.”

Chalkbeat mapped out the costliest capital projects, and found that the West side, particularly the Southwest side, received the smallest concentration of large investments.

The map shows investments in facility needs over $5 million, all programmatic investments, all investments in overcrowding relief, investments in site improvements over $500,000, as well as sites of the two new classical schools. The map does not show the two new schools in Belmont Cragin and the Near West Side, because the district has not yet specified exact locations. The district also has not yet identified schools for many of its capital projects, such as technology and facility upgrades. See the full plan here.

At Thursday’s hearings, parents from schools that did receive significant funding, such as Christopher Elementary School in Gage Park and Hancock High School in West Elsdon, expressed thanks. But others asked for for more investment.

Residents questioned the plan to build a new $70 million high school on the Near West Side. Lori Edwards, a Local School Council member at Crane Medical Prep on the Near West Side, said that Crane desperately needed air conditioning and heating, doors with windows, and security cameras.

“I’m surprised that we can’t just get basic things instead of building a new high school,” she said.

Questions also surrounded the $44 million assigned for a new elementary school in Belmont Cragin on the Northwest Side to address overcrowding. A sophomore at Prosser High School in Belmont Cragin asked for investment in her school instead. At Prosser, she said, “there needs to be reconstruction in the classrooms, the paint on the walls is falling off.”

Leticia Neri, a mother of two students at Camras Elementary School in Belmont Cragin, was wary of adding a school to the neighborhood. Her children used to attend Burbank Elementary, which is also in Belmont Cragin. When Acero Roberto Clemente, a charter school, opened just two blocks down in 2013, she said that Burbank lost pupils.

However, Mock said the proposed new school was a response to demand in Belmont Cragin. And in fact, several miles north in Uptown, where CPS’s Chief Operating Officer Arnie Rivera and other officials led a meeting Thursday, a handful of Belmont Cragin residents argued in favor of the school.

Parent Mariela Estrada said Belmont Cragin Elementary, which her 9-year-old attends,  is overcrowded. While the district’s formula doesn’t label any Belmont Cragin school overcrowded, the numbers paint a different picture. Belmont Cragin Elementary’s 414 students share a building with Northwest Middle School’s 545 pupils.

“I am really, really grateful right now for what we are getting,” she said.

The North Side, as the map above shows, will receive the most capital funding. Several attendees expressed gratitude for investments in area schools, especially a new ADA compliant gym at McCutcheon Elementary in Uptown, and an expanded test-in Decatur Classical School program in West Ridge, that will add seventh and eighth grades. Students have to test into the city’s five highly competitive classical schools, and hundreds are turned away every year.

Even so, not all North Side residents felt their schools would receive what they need, and many questioned CPS’ process for planning improvements.

A mother of a student at Schurz High School, in Old Irving Park, thanked CPS for a plans to install a new athletic field, but mentioned the school’s leaky roof, faulty heating system, green and black mold under carpets, and peeling paint in the auditorium. “It’s gross,” she said.

Parent Dawne Moon, said Kilmer Elementary School in Rogers Park is “not currently a safe environment.” Moon, a Local School Council member,  complained of rusted lockers, “bathrooms that smell like urine, even after they are cleaned,” temporary covers over holes in the roof that keeps water from pouring into classrooms, and of bricks falling from the ceiling in the school’s gym.  

“We can hope that the next brick doesn’t fall on a kid,” she said.

Betsy Vandercook, co-chair of the education committee at Network 49, a progressive neighborhood group based in Rogers Park, said schools in her neighborhood would get less than what adjacent communities like Edgewater and West Rogers Park would receive.

“Rogers Park is not, for whatever reason getting the same resources that many other North Side communities are getting,” she said about the capital budget proposal. “Take this back, look at it again, look at what is and isn’t needed.”

budget season

New budget gives CPS CEO Janice Jackson opportunity to play offense

PHOTO: Elaine Chen
Chicago Public Schools CEO Janice Jackson announced the district's $1 billion capital plan at Lázaro Cardenas Elementary School in Little Village.

Running Chicago’s schools might be the toughest tour of duty in town for a public sector CEO. There have been eight chiefs in a decade – to be fair, two were interims – who have wrangled with mounting debt, aging buildings, and high percentages of students who live in poverty.

Then there’ve been recurring scandals, corruption, and ethics violations. Since she was officially named to the top job in January, CEO Janice Jackson has had to clean up a series of her predecessors’ lapses, from a special education crisis that revealed families were counseled out of services to a sexual abuse investigation that spotlighted a decade of system failures at every level to protect students.

But with budget season underway, the former principal finally gets the chance to go on the offensive. The first operations budget of her tenure is a $5.98 billion plan that contains some good news for a change: 5 percent more money, courtesy of the state revamp of the school funding formula and a bump from local tax revenues. CPS plans to funnel $60 million more to schools than it did last school year, for a total of $3.1 billion. Put another way, it plans to spend $4,397 per student as a base rate — a 2 percent increase from the year prior.

CPS’ total budget comes out to $7.58 billion once you factor in long-term debt and an ambitious $1 billion capital plan that is the focus of a trio of public hearings Thursday night. When it comes to debt, the district owes $8.2 billion as of June 30, or nearly $3,000 per every Chicago resident.

“The district, without a doubt, is on firmer footing than it was 18 months ago, but they’re not out of woods yet,” said Bobby Otter, budget director for the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability. “When you look at the overall picture (the $7.58 budget), they’re still running a deficit. This is now the seventh year in a row they are running a deficit, and the amount of debt the district has, combined with the lack of reserves, leaves them with little flexibility.”

Earlier this week, standing in front of an audience of executives at a City Club of Chicago luncheon, Jackson acknowledged that it had been an “eventful” seven months and said she was ready to focus on strategies for moving the district forward. “I won’t be waiting for next shoe to drop or wasting time and resources waiting for next problem. I want to design a system to educate and protect children.”

“I’m not in crisis mode,” she added.

Here’s what that looks like in her first year when you just consider the numbers. The biggest line items of any operating budget are salaries, benefits and pensions: Taken all together, they consume 66 percent of CPS’ planned spending for the 2018-2019 school year. Rounding out much of the rest are contracts with vendors ($542.6 million, or 9 percent), such as the controversial janitorial deals with Aramark and SodexoMAGIC; charter expenditures ($749 million, or 13 percent); and spending on transportation, textbooks, equipment, and the like (12 percent).

A closer look at how some of those items are allocated offers a window into Jackson’s vision. The Board of Education is scheduled to vote on the plan July 25.

Investing in choice

Earlier this month, the district announced a nearly $1 billion capital plan, funded by bonds, that would support new schools, technology upgrades, and annexes at some of the district’s most popular campuses. The operating budget, meanwhile, accounts for the people and programs driving those projects. It proposes nearly doubling the staff, from 10 to 17, in the office that manages charters, contract programs, and the creation of new schools. It reestablishes a chief portfolio officer who reports directly to the CEO. And it adds expands access to International Baccalaureate programs and Early College STEM offerings. In a letter at the beginning of the 2019 Budget Book, Jackson said such expansions “move the district closer to our goal of having 50 percent of students earn at least one college or career credential before graduating high school.” 

Advocating for students

The budget seeds at least two new departments: a four-person Office of Equity charged with diversifying the teacher pipeline, among other roles, and a 20-person Title IX office that would investigate student abuse cases, including claims of student-on-student harassment.

Leaning into high schools

Fitting for a budget designed by a former high school principal – Jackson was running a high school before age 30 – the plan leans in to high schools, establishing $2 million to fund four new networks to oversee them. (That brings the total number of networks to 17; networks are mini-administrative departments that track school progress, assist with budgeting, and ensure policy and procedures are followed.) And it earmarks $75 million across three years for new science labs at neighborhood high schools. What’s more, it supports 10 additional career counselors to help campuses wrestle with a graduation mandate – set forth by Mayor Rahm Emanuel – that seniors have a post-secondary plan to graduate starting with the Class of 2020.

Throwing a lifeline to small schools

The budget also sets forth a $10 million “Small Schools Fund” to help schools with low enrollment retain teachers and offer after-school programs. It also earmarks an additional $5 million to help schools facing precipitous changes in enrollment, which can in turn lead to dramatic budget drops.   

Supporting modest staff increases

After a round of layoffs were announced in June, the budget plan adds at least 200 teachers. But the district would not provide a clear accounting of whom to Chalkbeat by publication time. Earlier this week, it announced plans to fund additional school social workers (160) and special education case managers (94).

The district plans to add positions for the upcoming 2018-2019 year.

As Chicago Teachers Union organizer and Cook County Commissioner candidate Brandon Johnson pointed out in an impromptu press conference earlier this week in front of district HQ, the budget is still “woefully short” on school psychologists, nurses, and counselors. And it doesn’t address the calls from parents to restore librarians and instructors in such subjects as art, music, physical education — positions that have experienced dramatic cuts since 2011. “What is proposed today still leaves us short of when (Mayor Emanuel) took office,” Johnson said. “The needs of our students must be met.”

Principal Elias Estrada, who oversees two North Side schools, Alcott Elementary and Alcott High School, said he was still figuring out how the additional staffing would work. He’s getting another social worker – but he oversees two campuses that sit three miles apart, so he figures he’ll have to divide the person’s time between campuses. Estrada asked the board at Monday’s budget hearing to help him understand the criteria it uses to determine which schools get extra staff or additional programs, like IB. “I need a counselor, a clerk, and an assistant principal,” he said; currently those positions also are shared between the elementary and the high school.

After the meeting, he said that schools might have gotten slightly bigger budgets this year, but the increase was consumed by rising salaries and he wasn’t able to add any positions. What’s more, his building needs repairs, but it didn’t get picked for any of the facilities upgrades in the $1 billion capital plan that accompanied the budget.

“What is the process?” he asked. “The need is everywhere.”

At two public hearings on Monday, fewer than a dozen speakers signed up to ask questions of the board, central office administrators, or Jackson.

To see if your school is getting one of the newly announced positions or any funding from the capital plan, type it in the search box below.