Week of September 1, 2003
Students looking for flexibility turn to online classes
By Phuong Le, THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
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
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,
Students are making up classes, taking advanced classes like calculus
not available at their school, or juggling school with sports and work,
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
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
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
"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
Free Tutoring Reaches Only Fraction of Students
By JANE GROSS
(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
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
''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
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