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Raise my taxes, please

Thousands of parents and childcare advocates hold a “Raise My Taxes Rally” in Springfield tomorrow morning (at the Lincoln statue at 10:30 a.m.) in support of a state budget that generates new revenue for human services while prioritizing tax fairness. It’s organized by Illinois Action for Children in conjunction with the Campaign for Illinois Future.

School closing numbers challenged

Researchers studying the recently-announced closing and consolidation of CPS schools say their evidence confirms the concerns of parents and community groups that school enrollment levels are not being appropriately analyzed, with special education and housing issues among those left out of the picture.

Data on schools, housing, and development is being used by researchers in the College of Education and the College of Urban Planning at UIC to study the intersection of policy agendas, said Pauline Lipman of UIC’s Collaborative for Equity and Justice in Education.

The project builds on databases covering CPS capital spending and TIF investments maintained by the Neighborhood Capital Budget Group and acquired by UIC after the watchdog group folded in early 2007.

A forthcoming report includes case studies of Andersen and Abbott schools, Lipman said.

Based on low enrollment numbers, CPS plans to “phase out” Andersen (1148 N. Honore) and consolidate Abbott (3630 S. Wells) with another school. Parents and community supporters have opposed the plans.

Andersen

Andersen parent leader Carmen Soto said busloads of Andersen parents, teachers, and students will attend a hearing on the plan tonight, Friday, February 15, at 7 p.m. at CPS board chambers, 125 S. Clark, 5th floor.

She said the designation of Andersen as underutilized “doesn’t take into account that we have a lot of special ed programs.” Eight classrooms are dedicated to special education, including two for children with autism and one for children with developmental delays. Two more classrooms are used as “pullout rooms” to provide additional help to kids in regular classes.

“CPS uses a gross calculation based on square footage,” said Lipman, but measuring “educationally appropriate enrollment” requires looking at how rooms are used. She cites Andersen staff calculations which take into account limits on class size for special education programs and put Andersen at 58 percent utilization — well above the cutoff line for closing schools — not the 47 percent stated by CPS chief Arne Duncan in a letter to parents.

“Their criteria for space utilization do not take into account legal requirements which limit the number of kids in each special ed class,” said Rod Estvan, a special education advocate with Access Living. Access Living is opposing the closing of Andersen, Estvan said.

Estvan said achievement levels for children with disabilities at Andersen are above average for the city. He asks, “Where will these kids go?” He adds that several other schools listed as under-enrolled have sizable programs for children with disabilities.

“You can’t put 30 autistic kids in a classroom,” said Don Moore of Designs for Change; the legal limit for these class sizes is seven. “Andersen’s being discriminated against because it has that many special ed students, and that’s just not fair.”

“A child without disabilities falls behind six months when there’s a move,” said Soto. “It’s much harder for a child with disabilities; they have to get used to the building, the program, the teachers. This is security and continuity for them.”

Jose Alvarez of CPS Office of LSC Relations says there are simply not enough elementary-age children within Andersen’s boundaries to sustain a neighborhood school. CPS plans to use the building for a magnet school modeled on Lincoln Park’s LaSalle Language Academy.

Lipman points out that 130 of Andersen’s students are bused from Lyon Elementary in Belmont-Cragin, which a few years ago was at 111 percent of its capacity.

Last year Andersen won an Exemplary Achievement Award after they raised test scores 20 percent over three years; last year over 64 percent of its students met or exceeded state standards. The school has a World Language program, has partnered with Verizon and the Museum of Science and Industry, and has asked without success for additional programming. “CPS hasn’t helped us with anything,” according to Soto.

Moore views Andersen as an example of a type of school which his research (pdf) has shown has carried out sustained improvement — “a neighborhood school with an elected LSC, strong leadership, committed teachers, and community support.” Most such schools have seen risen steadily achievement levels, while schools subjected to central administration control haven’t.

Soto points out that the school’s student body is 90 percent low-income, while the area is gentrifying rapidly. She’s a third generation Anderson parent; both she and her mother graduated from the school, and she now has a daughter in the first grade and a son who will be ready for pre-school next year. “I honestly believe they want to push the low-income people out, and LaSalle can come in and attract families with more money.” She doesn’t see why Andersen shouldn’t be given the resources to do the same.

Read the rest of this entry »

Going Door-to-Door for Early Learning

For over a year, a group of parents and grandparents in  low-income communities have been going door-to-door, doing surveys, outreach, and home visits, researching and promoting early learning.  They’ll discuss their work Monday as part of a symposium celebrating the accomplishments of the Chicago Early Learning and Literacy Project.

In the course of a year, members of the parents group POWER-PAC and allies surveyed 2500 families in Austin, Englewood, Humboldt Park and Logan Square.  As interest in their work grew, they were asked to conduct outreach for Head Start, and began working with Illinois Action For Children on a home-visiting program for CHA families with small children.

They’re trying to identify barriers to early education in low-income communities and come up with ideas to overcome them, said POWER-PAC organizer Kelly Magnuson.

Issues range from mobility and transportation to security concerns to “a huge lack of awareness” of the importance of early learning as well as of early learning opportunities.  Some 40 percent of families they contacted did not know of any resources for pre-school children in their community, Magnuson said.

For those who might wish to enroll their system, a vastly complicated preschool system is difficult to navigate, she said.

Despite the state’s Preschool For All program, an estimated 15,000 low-income children in low-income Chicago communities aren’t enrolled in preschool, Catalyst reported in September.  Some preschool sites have long waiting lists; others have trouble fillling their slots.  Early education has been shown to have a major impact on children’s success in school and beyond.

Maryann Plummer is an Englewood grandmother and POWER-PAC member who has gone door-to-door doing surveys and home visits.  Many young mothers she’s encountered “have too many problems of their own,” she said.

“They’ve got problems finding a place to stay or putting food on the table, finding a job or staying off drugs,” she said.  “We heard a lot of [young parents say they’re] not worried about early learning — their kids will go to school when they’re five — they’re worried about how to pay rent.”

In home visits she brings learning games and books and explains the importance of early education.

“You have to get through to the parents first and let them see the importance,” she said.  She tells them: “You want to give your child the opportunity you didn’t have.  You want to see the best for your child.

“And they’re buying it.”

Magnuson, an organizer with Community Organizing and Family Issues, said having  community members doing surveys and outreach is crucial to getting through to new parents and caretaking grandparents.

Leaders from POWER-PAC will present results and recommendations from their work (one idea: add funding for transportation to the state’s Preschool For All program) at Monday’s symposium on the Chicago Early Learning and Literacy Program, an 18-month effort administered by Illinois Action For Children to bring early education opportunities to at-risk children.  Other workshops will discuss collaborations with city agencies and schools as well as parks, libraries and clinics which incorporated early literacy activities into their programs.

Also on display will be “Big City, Little Learners,” an exhibit documenting the project’s effort to bring state-of-the-art teaching methods to 11 schools and child care centers. Teachers and young students explored the city and used activities like mailing a letter, riding a bus, or going to a candy store to develop topics for investigation.

The symposium takes place Monday, December 17, 3 to 7 p.m. at the Chicago Cultural Center, 77 E. Randolph.  Info at 773-564-8801

Parents Face Work-School Conflicts

The new school year means parents start a new round of juggling school and work schedules, often facing limitations on their ability to be involved with their children’s education.

School schedules are far behind the times, with a three-month summer vacation originally designed to help families work their farms, and a hodge-podge of days and half-days off better suited to an era when most families had an at-home parent, said Rhonda Present of ParentsWork, a new organization promoting more family-friendly schools and workplaces.

ParentsWork advocates for employers to offer family time off and flexible schedules, and for schools to minimize obstacles to parental involvement in planning calendars, conferences and activities — and to partner with community agencies and childcare providers to offer supervised activities for days off.

Lawmakers could help too, Present said, for instance by expanding the state’s School Visitation Rights Act to cover more parents, or by enacting a proposal for a family and medical leave insurance program. Sponsored in Springfield by State Rep. Julie Hamos (D-Evanston), the program would provide up to four weeks of partially-paid leave for a new child or family medical emergency, and would be financed by small weekly contributions (75 cents is the proposed amount) by employers and employees.

ParentsWork has launched an ambitious community outreach initiative, meeting with parent community groups throughout the Chicago region to promote dialogue on “school-workplace mismatch” and recruit parent members.

Springfield: Legislative Update

With the state legislature turning to the budget, nonprofit advocates are keeping up pressure for action on bills which have already passed one house of the General Assembly. Here’s a partial rundown:

Budget referendum. SB 151 calls for a statewide referendum asking whether voters would support an income tax increase up to 1 percent for up to two years “to avoid drastic cuts in state support for public education and essential health care services”; passed the Senate. For more: Jennifer Holuj, Center for Tax and Budget Accountability, 312/332-1348.

Minimum wage. SB 600 raises state’s minimum wage to $6.50 an hour; passed Senate. For more: Madeline Talbott, ACORN, 312/939-7488.

Equal pay. SB 2 bans gender-based wage discrimination; passed Senate. Toni Henie, Women Employed, 312/782-3902.

Universal health care. HB 2268, Health Care Justice Act, establishes planning process to implement a health care plan with access for full range of preventive, acute, and long-range service; passed House. Jim Duffett, Campaign for Better Health Care, 312/939-9449.

Earned Income Tax Credit. SB 4 and HB 2186 extend the EITC, and both have passed one house; the House bill makes the tax credit refundable starting in 2005. John Bouman, National Center for Poverty Law, 312/368-2671.

Child-care assistance. HB 294 updates eligibility for child-care assistance to 50 percent of median income, pushing back the “child-care cliff” facing thousands of welfare-to-work families; passed the House. Contact Nora Moreno Cargie, Day Care Action Council, 312/742-7529.

Videotaping interrogations. SB 15 requires videotaping interrogations in murder investigations, with funding through the Illinois Criminal Justice Authority; passed Senate. Darrin Bowden, First Defense Legal Aid, 773/826-6550.

Welfare reform. HB 1360 increases TANF grant amount by 5 percent and provides annual adjustments; HB 3021 phases out the “family cap” adopted in 1995 in order to provide support for 10-20,000 children currently cut off; both passed the House. John Bouman, National Center for Poverty Law, 312/368-2671.

Early Education. SB 565 would establish an Illinois Early Learning Council to coordinate programs in different departments. HB 2235 increases funding for programs for kids aged 0-to-3 to reach thousands of additional at-risk children. Dan Baron, Ounce of Prevention, 312/922-3863.

Children’s Mental Health Act. HB 2900 expands and coordinates the existing system; currently only about 20 percent of children who need mental health services receive them. Dan Baron, Ounce of Prevention, 312/922-3863.

Immigrant education. HB 60 allows Illinois high-school grads to pay in-state tuition rates at state universities regardless of immigration status; passed house. Marissa May Graciosa, Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, 312/332-7360.

Youth transitional housing. HB 2390 eases legal restrictions to facilitate shelter and services for homeless minors; passed House. Les Brown, Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, 312/435-4548.

Subsidized housing. HB 2246 gives property tax rebates to owners who rent to housing subsidy voucher holders in low-poverty areas; HB 2345 establishes a state interagency task force to develop an annual housing plan; both passed the House. SB 591 requires owners of assisted housing to give 12 months advance notice of their intent to sell or end subsidies. For more: Bob Palmer, Statewide Housing Action Council, 312/939-6074.

Energy. HB 2200 requires utilities to generate 5 percent of energy from renewable sources by 2010 and 15 percent by 2020; passed House. SB 609 establishes a statewide energy efficiency building codes for all new residential and commercial construction; passed Senate. For more: Mike Truppa, Environmental Law and Policy Center, 312/673-6500,

Campaign reform. SB 1415 provides public financing option for judicial candidates and limits private financing. Cindi Canary, Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, 312/335-1767.

Family Childcare Providers Seek Equity

Compared to childcare centers, home-based family childcare providers are more likely to accept clients with state subsidies and far more likely to keep the nontraditional hours needed by many low-wage workers with children. They’re also more likely to accept children with special needs and children under age 2 — and many parents prefer a home atmosphere for childcare for infants.

But state childcare subsidies reimburse home-based providers at as little as half the rate of centers. Most providers make about $7 an hour — considerably less than parking lot attendants, advocates point out — and lack health insurance.

Two years ago, family care providers meeting in a support group at the Women’s Self-Employment Project formed an advocacy group to address challenges they face. WSEP’s CARE Project has produced a detailed proposal for a quality-of-care standard for state implementation as well as a set of legislative priorities. They are urging the state to raise reimbursement rates for home-based providers and provide higher rates for nontraditional hours, expand access to childcare subsidies, and increase support for training for providers.

And after a study by WSEP and Malcolm X College showed a clear connection between quality of care and sound business practices, WSEP started a 12-week business development class for home-based providers to supplement child development and other training offered in the state licensing process. The goal is to lift childcare providers out of low-wage status, said Sadiyah Hill of WSEP. The third session of the class begins Sat., Feb. 22.



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