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State of Illinois - Governor Blagojevich 

News Clips

Week of September 1, 2003

Students looking for flexibility turn to online classes


CHICAGO - Joelle Contorno wanted to do it all in her last year of high school - drama club, band, student council, part-time work - and still take the classes she needed to graduate.

Juggling a packed schedule, the 17-year-old turned to cyberspace, joining a growing number of students in Illinois and nationwide logging into classes from the comforts of home.

Contorno worked at her own pace, sometimes in pajamas or late at night, when she took her first civics class with the state-run Illinois Virtual High School.

Now, she's enrolled in an advanced history class that her high school in Lemont doesn't offer.

Students such as Contorno who are looking for flexibility and a full menu of courses are increasingly turning to the state's virtual high school, said its director, Matthew Wicks.

The school was started in 2001 to give students from rural, small or low-performing schools a chance to take economics, oceanography or other courses not offered at their own schools, he said.

Course enrollments in the cyber school tripled this year, from 410 to 1,230, and Wicks expects 900 enrollments during this fall semester.

About 40,000 to 50,000 K-12 students are enrolled in online courses nationwide, according to a 2001 study by WestEd, an educational research group.

At least 14 states from Arkansas to West Virginia run virtual schools that are recognized by a state agency, the study noted.

Dozens of virtual charter schools, often run by for-profit or nonprofit groups, operate in states from Arizona to Hawaii.

In Illinois, the number of students taking classes represents less than 1 percent of all high school students, but the concept is catching on, Wicks said.

Students are making up classes, taking advanced classes like calculus not available at their school, or juggling school with sports and work, he said.

Contorno took her online civics course because she didn't want to drive to a nearby town this summer.

Jon Kilgore taught her civics class while 90 miles away in Chenoa - using a laptop computer and wireless Internet connection from his front porch or kitchen.

On a typical day, he scanned e-mail from students, helped one with a computer question and downloaded assignments that students e-mailed to his "in" box.

Most communication is electronic, but Kilgore also called Contorno and her father several times during the summer class. She e-mailed him every other week.

Gail Purkey, a spokeswoman with the Illinois Federation of Teachers, said she worries that the personal connection between teacher and student gets lost in cyberspace.

But "we're developing a rapport that is any time, any place," said Jim Kinsella, who teaches Contorno's fall AP European History class.

Contorno said she's still trying to adjust to writing out her responses rather than saying what she thinks. And it's hard not knowing who her classmates are, since they live throughout the state.

"It's good and bad. I miss that I can't talk to my friends, but I'm still learning the same material," she said.

Spontaneity sometimes gets lost online.

But discussions are just as lively and sharp, said Susan Thetard, who teaches full-time at Bloomington's University High School.

Being online can encourage shy students to participate, and "you can see them open up more," said Thetard, who teaches an online introduction to theater course.

Cyber classes aren't for everyone, said Jill Fearday, guidance director at Barrington High School in the Chicago suburb.

"Anytime students think of online, they think, 'I'm going to sit at home, in front of the computer and cruise through this,'" said Fearday. "It's not. It's difficult."


Privatized school lunches have students packing meals
Kids say the food has them longing for last year

By SARAH OKESON of the Journal Star, September 3, 2003

PEORIA - School lunches have never had much of a gourmet cachet, but what's being served in cafeterias since District 150 privatized its food service has students and School Board members alike turning up their noses.

Richwoods High School senior Tara Bodish ate pizza the first full day of school. "It wasn't even all the way cooked," she reported. The second day, she had a deli sandwich. The third day, she brown-bagged it.

"I think it's really, really bad this year," Bodish said. "I haven't heard anyone say they like it."

In May, District 150 voted to switch from its own food service, which lost about $400,000 last year, to a $2.4 million contract with Aramark, headquartered in Philadelphia, after the company promised a 20 percent increase in meals served.

That would translate into a gain of at least $152,000 for the cash-strapped district and could free up time for the district to focus on student achievement and other educational issues.

The School Board initially voted against switching to Aramark, but then the company gave its written guarantee about how many meals it would serve.

That made it a better deal than Chartwells', a North Carolina company that had bid almost $280,000 lower than Aramark.

Superintendent Kay Royster said Tuesday she hadn't heard any complaints about the lunches, but board President Vince Wieland said he's heard plenty, including small hamburgers and marinara sauce being counted as a vegetable.

"I know that at least three of the high schools and some of the middle schools, the organization is not there," Wieland said.

"The people I've talked to said they're not going to eat. This is not what this was intended to do," he said.

Board member Sean Matheson ate lunch at Thomas Jefferson primary school Tuesday with his first-grade son, Ben. The entree was chicken nuggets or a pretzel.

"It was pretty much a mess when I went there," Matheson said.

"The last kids got through 20 minutes after they got in line," he said. "It was very chaotic. Maybe it was growing pains, but we really need to address these before parents and students decide it's not worth it."


Free Tutoring Reaches Only Fraction of Students

(c) 2003 New York Times Company

A vast majority of New York City children who were eligible for free tutoring last year under a new federal law never got the extra help, and critics say there are few signs of improvement this year.

While the city was hailed as one of the first systems in the country to get a tutoring program up and running, there is widespread agreement that letters and other communication to both parents and groups offering the tutoring services were paltry, confusing and often discouraged enrollment.

The offer of tutoring for poor children in failing schools is a small but potentially powerful part of the 2001 law, known as No Child Left Behind, and nowhere could the benefits be greater than in New York City, which has the nation's largest school system. Nearly a quarter of a million children, in 312 of the city's 1,200 schools, are entitled to the services.

But last year only a small percentage of New York City students got the extra services and few had the wide choice of public, private and nonprofit providers that the law requires. According to the city's Department of Education, only 30,333 children requested tutoring, 12.5 percent of the 243,249 eligible. Of those, all but 3,640 were tutored by the very school system that had already failed them.

Of the federal funds available for tutoring, New York City spent less than half of the $27.5 million that was to be the minimum expenditure under the law. Theoretically, under one interpretation of the legislation, the city could spend up to $82.5 million.

School officials say they hope to do better this year. But they acknowledge that tutoring will not be available until late in the fall. And child advocates say that letters to parents in the spring were even more confusing than those in the previous year, making no distinction between children eligible to transfer to another school and those eligible for tutoring. Nor is there any current information about tutoring on the education department's Web site.

Still, New York City has done better than most school systems, according to federal officials and child advocates, as a tutoring program, however limited, began last winter. Liz Wolff, research director for the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, or Acorn, said that when New York's program started, Minneapolis still had no list of approved state providers, St. Louis was in a state of complete disorganization, Florida was claiming to have no failing schools, and Texas only two. Ms. Wolff, whose association is a nationwide organization for low-income families, added that it would not be clear for a few months which systems improved.

Federal officials say they plan to monitor tutoring efforts in New York City and elsewhere this year, withdrawing federal Title I funds used to pay for the tutoring if appropriate.
''The first year you could argue there was a lot of confusion,'' said Nina Rees, a deputy under secretary in the federal Education Department. ''But the statute is very clear about what local education agencies are supposed to do, and the department will be doing more intensive monitoring.''

The city Department of Education, even as it unveils an overhauled administrative structure and a new curriculum, promises an easier enrollment process for tutoring this year and more effective outreach. Officials said they would do a better job of sending letters: no photocopies half off the page, no providers with long-distance telephone numbers and ''sites to be determined.''

''We will try and get the information out better this year, be as transparent and comprehensive as possible,'' said Michele Cahill, a senior policy counselor to Schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein.

But for the moment, information remains hard to come by, first and foremost when the tutoring will begin. Ms. Cahill said there is no official starting date because it is not practical to go forward without an updated list of qualified state tutors. Her best guess is November.
The decision to wait, rather than let parents begin signing up with tutors approved last year, infuriates Eva Moskowitz, chairwoman of the City Council Education Committee, who accuses the department of ''passing the buck'' to the state.

''I would frame the question this way,'' Ms. Moskowitz said. ''If it was your child who was failing, would you want to wait until a few months into the school year?''

The Bronx borough president is also fuming, since nobody in his office knows the city's plans. ''The response to questions is almost, 'How dare you ask?' '' said the president, Adolfo Carrion Jr.. ''If I can't figure out what's going on, what happens to Mrs. Rodriguez from Tremont Avenue? Fuhgeddaboutit, as we say in the Bronx.''

The challenge in New York, and in other large urban systems, is that parents are especially hard to reach. Some are so poorly educated that they would be better served with a letter at a fourth-grade reading level, rather than the dense, acronym-filled communications they received.
To make matters worse, critics say, many parents speak no English, and even if they got a letter in their own language, they would have a hard time calling providers to compare services. And many are single parents, working long hours at jobs where it is not possible to make personal calls on company time.

''This is not set up for parents who aren't incredibly savvy and who don't have 15 extra hours a week,'' said Jill Chaifetz, president of Advocates for Children. Her organization is about to release a survey of the obstacles faced last year by providers, particularly the complaint that they were not informed about non-English speaking or learning-disabled children so they were not geared up to serve them.

In addition, the private and nonprofit tutoring services complain that they were often denied access to the schools, making it hard to reach eligible parents. They also said they were never given lists of eligible families so they could contact them directly and, some said, they feared losing lucrative contracts with the department if they made a fuss. This year at least one private service, Sylvan Education Solutions, is doing its own outreach, sending community relations managers into certain neighborhoods with information and applications.
Other barriers to choice, both parents and providers said, were the inaccurate lists of approved tutoring services and the tight deadlines parents were given for applying. Martin Sachs, director of the Service Corps of Retired Executives center in the Bronx, or Score, tutored children at his center last year, before it was clear whether they were eligible. The parents had been unable to get timely answers from their own schools.

Tutoring is offered to children below the poverty line in schools receiving Title I funds that have been labeled ''in need of improvement'' for at least two years.

Some say part of the blame lies with the families themselves.

Michelle Houston, whose son Walter attended middle school in Bedford Stuyvesant and was tutored by Kaplan, had nothing but scorn for many parents. She got two letters, Ms. Houston said, adding that there were information tables at back-to-school night last year. ''People didn't pay attention,'' she said. ''If your child is in danger of failing and you see Mr. So-and-So from Kaplan down in the lobby, wouldn't you ask: 'Who are you? What is this for?' ''
Some districts made information more available than others. Freda Richardson, a receptionist, who sends her son Al-Rashad James to an Upper West Side middle school, got the information she needed, visited three programs and enrolled Al-Rashad at a Kaplan center in Midtown Manhattan. ''I can't believe I had the option to pick,'' said Ms. Richardson, whose friends in Harlem did not know tutoring was available.

Other schools seemed less helpful. At Public School 26, on 155th Street and Amsterdam Avenue, even Roberta McCartney, an active member of the parents association and a member of the school's leadership team, said she had no idea that hers was an eligible school.

Chandra Howard, a parent at P.S. 26, said she ''happened to find out from a friend.''
Ms. Howard had watched her daughter's tests scores plummet in recent years, brutal evidence of what happens in a failing school. She enrolled her daughter Dominique late at a Score center, after the reading test was past. But tutoring helped her get a perfect 4 on the math exam.

''If I had only taken her before,'' Ms. Howard said. ''But there was so much miscommunication.''


Cost-cutting: Three days a week, if an MVTHS teacher is sick, there won't be a sub

By GREGORY R. NORFLEET, Education Reporter, Register-News, Aug 29 2003

MT. VERNON - In an effort to save $40,000 to $50,000 a year, the high school will discontinue hiring substitute teachers on the first three days of each week.

Instead, up to $12,600 may be budgeted to pay stipends to teachers who use their preparation periods to monitor most likely multiple classes in the auditorium.

This new practice, which will begin Tuesday, also affects the teachers' contract. And though teachers on Thursday approved the latest contract proposal, the no-sub directive was the biggest obstacle to getting more than a 2-to-1 margin in favor, said Mt. Vernon High Education Association President Brad Pancoast.
Dr. Jay Sabatino, superintendent of Mt. Vernon Township High School, said the district usually spends an average of $90,000 on subs each year.

"The change is financial in nature," he said.

He said he feels there will be little if any impact on students' education, but after seeing how it works, the practice may be modified.

Sabatino said it's difficult to find available subs who, for example, have a math background when a math teacher is out sick.

"It's the luck of the draw," he said.

Board President Larry Pearson declined to comment until after the board votes on the teachers' contract, which should come next week.

According to an Aug. 20 memo sent to teachers - a copy of which was sent anonymously to the Register-News - when students arrive at class, a pink "Teacher Is Absent Today" sign on the door will also direct them to the auditorium. In the auditorium, a monitor will pass out any homework left behind by the teacher.
The memo also invites teachers who are willing to give up their regular planning period to sign up as monitors for $450 per quarter. With seven classes per day, that amounts to up to $12,600 in stipends per year.

The new practice only applies to the seven-period days. Substitutes will still be used on Thursdays and Fridays, when classes meet longer under the modified block schedule.

Illinois Education Association Uniserv Director Susan Carr said she has no objection to the practice.
"Nothing violates the contract in any way," she said.

Pancoast, who teaches driver education, said teachers have some concerns about the logistics, such as making sure students get to the auditorium, lesson plans get to the monitors and that assignments are collected.

"Personally, I hope it works," he said. "But the MHEA has some reservations."

The biggest problem, he said, is using a study hall teacher instead of a regular substitute.

"We don't feel this is a healthy situation," said Pancoast. "We don't believe this is a situation that will work ... and we don't believe that the powers that be know how it will work."

At the January school board meeting, Sabatino offered an eight-point list of possible cost-cutting measures, one of which was eliminating one "permanent substitute" and all short-term subs.

Board member Dr. Pat Garrett said that during contract negotiations this summer, Sabatino brought the no-sub idea up again. The current teachers' contract, which ends Sunday, forbids the administration from assigning supervisory duties to teachers during their planning period. Under the proposed contract, it can, but only if the teacher volunteers.

Garrett raised no qualms about the impact on education, but wished the concept could have been discussed in open session in a board meeting so the public could comment on it beforehand.

"When you can save (up to) $90,000 per year, it's worth exploring," he said. "But now a number of people are questioning the concept."

Parents were notified earlier this month by mail of the changing practice. Pat Vore, who in the spring unsuccessfully petitioned the board to keep the block schedule, was one of several parents who complained to Garrett about the change.

"I think it's bad enough to cut down on the hours (the students are being taught)," she said. "But (a sub) sure has to be better than a mass study hall."



Illinois State Board of Education
100 North First Street
Springfield, IL 62777