Education Funding

What crowdfunding is telling us about the future of Chicago education

PHOTO: Bryan Bedder / Getty Images
Charles Best is the founder and CEO of DonorsChoose, a crowdfunding website through which anyone in the world can donate money to any public school teacher in the country.

Cushioned seating, compost bins, standing desks, even a science kit for forensic investigation — these are some of the things Chicago teachers are thinking about providing for their students in the coming school year.

“I have 43 kids on my roster this year,” said Judith Hill, a fifth-grade math and reading teacher at Bass Elementary School in Englewood. “I need to think about how to make the learning environment flexible and fluid.”

Using DonorsChoose.org, a crowdfunding website where teachers can receive donations from anyone in the world, Chicago teachers have been financing not only basic supplies, but more and more, also cutting-edge and innovative projects. In a district still recovering from severe budget cuts, many schools lack fundamental materials and furniture — not to mention the costly tools for sciences and myriad art supplies for primary grades. The site allows teachers to try to fund basic items, bypass requests to their principals, and try out out-of-the-box ideas.

On the site, teachers submit funding proposals that are vetted by DonorsChoose.org. Teachers then have four months for their online appeal to garner donations to meet their goal, and if they make it, DonorsChoose.org will ship the requested materials to the teacher. In return, teachers have their students write handwritten thank-you notes to the donors.

The site was launched in New York in 2000 by Charles Best, then a Bronx public high school teacher who was using his own money to buy much of his classroom supplies. A recent report by the National Bureau of Education Statistics showed that in the 2014-15 school year, public school teachers spent on average $480 annually of their own money on supplies.

The site expanded to Chicago, one of its first cities, in 2004. Now, Best said, Chicago has the most teachers and the most fully funded projects compared with all other cities when adjusted for population. Since it arrived in Chicago, teachers in 500 schools in the district have received over $20 million in donations, half of them coming from out of state.

See how much in donations your school has received since 2005.

From 2005 until now, Chicago teachers’ most common request was for books, a DonorsChoose.org  report released last week shows. That’s in keeping with a report from past years. What’s notable, though, is that teachers have also requested materials for personalized and creative forms of learning, such as art and science supplies, instructional technology, and flexible seating — soft or elastic chairs that teachers say allow students to feel more at ease and to focus better in the classroom.

Chicago Schools have been pushing for those forms of learning. In May, CPS announced an expansion of a partnership with non-profit LEAP Innovations. In the next school year, LEAP will provide personalized learning training to teachers in 35 schools. Teachers receive technology from LEAP, but many still seek additional supplies.

A report from DonorsChoose.org breaks down the types of materials Chicago teachers have been requesting since 2005

Best said that “the most exciting projects on the site is hatching a new way of teaching and not simply covering basic needs.” He hopes school districts one day will fully provide those needs.

Best believes the crowdfunding model drives the innovative projects. “We can tap into classroom teachers’ frontline expertise,” he said, to “unleash better targeted, more creative, more innovative, micro solutions than what someone would have come up with from on high.”

Flexible seating is an example of that. It’s a growing trend on the site, which Best said preceded experts identifying the psychological benefits of the seating.

Judith Hill from Bass said that when she first started using the site five years ago, she saw teachers requesting iPads and laptops. Now she’s noted requests getting more creative.

“It makes me step up my game,” she said.

Most recently, she won $1,000 in a contest created by LEAP and DonorsChoose.org that will provide printers so her students can save physical copies of their digital projects and bluetooth speakers to stimulate her students’ learning through listening.

Of course, appealing to the public to fund classroom projects is not something all teachers want to do. The site favors those with more social media savvy and a wider network of friends and contacts. And while most projects, 73 percent, get fully funded, many teachers might not have the time to post requests and risk not having them funded.

Hill believes, though, that the site “allows you to really be an advocate and not have to be a salesperson,” she said. “Trying to find people to fund those projects is hard. It’s nice to know that you have an outlet to advocate for you while you’re advocating for your students.”

Jose Candia, a third-grade math and science teacher at Lorca Elementary School in Avondale, said the site expedites the process of receiving materials. Candia just won nearly $2,000 also in the contest to procure, among several things, compost bins for the school’s gardening club. This was his first time using DonorsChoose.org, and before that, he used his own money to fund many supplies.

He said the site “lets you get creative and you don’t have to deal with constraints with CPS to have to order certain things with a certain vendor, because there are already all these vendors [on the site] that have been approved.”

Best noted that DonorsChoose.org is working with CPS to streamline the process for teachers to acquire technology hardware. Soon, when teachers request hardware, the site will indicate which hardware is most compatible with district technology.

He added that policymakers can use the open data that DonorsChoose.org has on its site to track the needs of teachers and essentially “take their pulse.”

“There are no gatekeepers standing between teachers and someone who wants to support them,” Best said, and so the requests provide a window into both the needs and inventive ambitions of teachers across the city.

Editor’s note: The article has been updated to reflect that in May, CPS announced an expansion of an existing partnership with LEAP Innovations, not a new partnership.

moving forward

Frequent school changes are hurting students. Here’s how Detroit’s educators want to fix it.

PHOTO: Koby Levin
Detroit Superintendent Nikolai Vitti, second from left, says a tweak to school funding policy in Michigan would alleviate some of the effects of high student mobility. Looking on from left are moderator Stephen Henderson of WDET, Darienne Driver, CEO of United Way of Southeastern Michigan, and Maria Montoya, who works in the charter school office of Grand Valley State University.

As Detroit education leaders gathered Thursday night to find solutions to the problem of students frequently changing schools, it was clear that the stakes for Detroit’s students could not be higher.

When Alisanda Woods, the principal of Detroit’s Bethune Elementary-Middle School took the stage at the Detroit Public Library, she noted that six new students had enrolled in her school the day before, more than two months after the first day of school.

Katherine Andrews, a panelist who teaches in the University Prep charter school district, said the relentless arrival and departure of students haunts her classroom on a regular basis. “It’s almost like the class is going through a mourning period, like they’re going through grief,” she said. “They’re looking at it like there’s a plate missing from the dinner table. ‘Where’s Shawn? Why is Shawn not here? Why didn’t he get a chance to say goodbye?’”

Thursday’s forum came in the wake of a series of reports by Chalkbeat and Bridge Magazine called Moving Costs that examined the way students changing schools disrupts classrooms.

The discussion, which will be rebroadcast in coming days on Detroit Public Television and as an episode of Detroit Today on WDET, focused on solutions to the problem including the creation of a citywide student data systems that could keep track of where students are enrolled and where they’re moving.

Other ideas includes changes to student discipline policies so that schools can’t push students out for misbehavior.

The challenge of enrollment instability is made complicated by the fact that Detroit’s education landscape is evenly divided between schools run by the Detroit Public Schools Community District and those run by dozens of charter school boards and management companies.

Developing systems to prevent students from hopping around would depend on competitive schools working together. Such cooperation has been difficult to come by in the past. But there are signs that the antagonism has waned in recent months as the city’s district and charter schools have begun collaborating on a a new bus loop that stops at both traditional and charter schools, and on a new school rating system that will soon start assigning letter grades to all Detroit schools.

Here are some of the solutions discussed on Thursday night.

PHOTO: Koby Levin
Dawn Wilson-Clark, a parent and organizer with 482Forward, and Katherine Andrews, a teacher with the University Prep charter school district, spoke about the impacts of students changing schools.

Fix the count day problem

When students switch schools, they need extra support. But the financial uncertainty created by school-hopping makes it harder for schools to meet the challenge, said Superintendent Nikolai Vitti.

As it stands, most of Michigan’s education funds are distributed based on the number of students enrolled in a school on a single day in October.

That means that schools are left in the lurch if they have more students in April than October — and that some schools might try to push out students who are more challenging to educate in late October once they’ve gotten financial credit for that child. To solve the problem, Vitti said fall and spring enrollment should be evenly weighted, a change that would have to be passed by the state legislature.

Jennifer Swanson, a first grade teacher at a Detroit charter school, said she’s seen firsthand the turmoil that can result when a school’s enrollment grows during the year. After attending the forum, she said Vitti’s proposal is a good one.

“Students do move earlier on in the year, and it’s really problematic if you get new students after November,” she said.

Ben Pogodzinski, a Wayne State University professor who has studied the issue and participated in Thursday’s forum said another idea would be to base school funding on average enrollment over three years. That would make funding less dependent on fluctuations that could result in a school getting more or less money that it needs.

A central student data system

When students change schools, teachers are currently forced to sometimes wait weeks for student records to arrive from a student’s previous school

At the same time, schools that see students leave are often left wondering where they’ve gone, unsure whether to mark them absent or call the police.

Maria Montoya, who worked for a central enrollment system in New Orleans before working on a failed effort to bring one to Detroit, said Detroit’s fragmented system for tracking students is unacceptable.

“You continue to hear, well, it’s always been that way,” said Montoya, who now works in the charter school office at Grand Valley State University. “But that doesn’t make it right. A child should not disappear with nobody accountable for them, whether it is a traditional school or a charter.”

Toxic politics killed an earlier effort to create such a system, which would require cooperation between the city’s charter school and the district. Many large cities already have such systems, including Denver; New Orleans; Washington D.C.; Newark; Camden, New Jersey; and Indianapolis.

Michael Chrzan, a science teacher at a charter high school who attended the event, said the debate over charter schools in Detroit has stymied solutions to problems shared by all the city’s schools.

He said that for the first two months of the school year, his attendance list included a student who never showed up for class. Neither he nor his school knew if the student was attending class anywhere. This week, the student’s name finally disappeared.

“He just got dropped from my roster,” Chrzan said. “It’s frustrating.”

A citywide pushback on Detroit’s culture of school hopping

Survey data collected as part of Moving Costs series showed that families moving to new homes wasn’t the leading force driving school changes. In a majority of  cases, parents said they were simply looking for a better school.

“It’s different from our generation,” Chastity Pratt-Dawsey, a reporter for Bridge Magazine who grew up in Detroit. “When we didn’t like the school, momma went to the school and said ‘change it’, not ‘I’m going to move.’”

Montoya said parents often don’t push back when schools push them out, typically because they don’t know that schools that receive public money — both charter and traditional — are obligated by law to educate their children, even if they have special needs or behavioral challenges.

No one believes the culture will shift overnight, but Montoya says every interaction between educators and parents is a chance to make progress, to make sure that Detroiters understand their rights as well as the negative impacts of changing schools.

“We need to, as leaders, make sure that we’re giving parents that information,” she said.

A consistent discipline policy

Problems with behavior are a big reason students change schools.

“Honestly they’ve been kicked out (of their old school) most of the time,” said Woods, principal at Bethune, of the students who arrive at her school mid-year. “There are discipline problems, and parents are hopeful that if they take them here they’ll blend in better.”

Vitti said the district is working to design a set of discipline guidelines to push schools to work with students and try to meet their needs.

But he added that a city-wide set of discipline standards — like one being used in New York City —  would ensure that troubled students receive extra attention instead of being shunted from school to school.

Better supports for poor families

While there are plenty of school-based policies that could help contain the damage caused by school changes, the panelists made clear that the problem has roots in the poverty and housing instability that continue to plague Detroit

Woods said that some of the students who arrived at her school this week were homeless. One child had not attended school at all the previous year, Woods said, eliciting an audible gasp from the crowd.

That problem will have to be addressed by the city’s residents, its politicians, and its business community, Vitti said.

“Are we serious about developing stadiums, and downtown and midtown neighborhoods, or are we serious about creating homes and neighborhoods?”

Big money

Chunk of $55 million AbbVie gift will go toward more counselors in schools

PHOTO: Courtesy of Communities in Schools
Communities in Schools site coordinator Artesha Williams and student Nasje Adams at the King Academy of Social Justice in Chicago

Sixteen more Chicago schools will add full-time counselors charged with reducing dropouts and helping students with critical mental health issues, thanks to a chunk of a $55 million donation gift from a North Chicago pharmaceutical giant.

The AbbVie donation, announced Friday, will be split among three nonprofit groups with a Chicago presence, though not all the money will be spent here. Communities in Schools will receive $30 million for its national efforts to broker relationships between community organizations and schools; the University of Chicago’s Education Lab, which focuses on dropout prevention and college persistence, will receive $15 million; and City Year, which places AmeriCorps tutors and mentors in schools, will receive $10 million.

Communities in Schools, which received the largest gift, will spend $6 million of its $30 million on its Chicago chapter, while the City Year money will be split among Chicago and a project in San Jose, California.

Jane Mentzinger, the executive director of Communities in Schools Chicago, said the $6 million is “transformational” and will be spent on a program that assigns full-time, master’s-level counselors to public schools on the South and West sides.

The AbbVie gift will grow a program that currently places full-time counselors in 15 Chicago schools, adding five schools this year and another 11 next fall.

“In each school, they case manage the 50 highest-need students who are at risk of falling behind and dropping out,” said Mentzinger. “They really work with students is to help resolve conflict, regulate emotions, and provide exposure opportunities, from support and mentoring to counseling.”  

The counselor piece helps fill a dire need within Chicago’s schools: mental health and trauma services. Students, educators, parents, and union leaders regularly lament that the district does not staff enough counselors and mental health practitioners, and that recent efforts have been too focused on college and career-readiness — including helping students draft a post-secondary plan. Starting with the Class of 2020, seniors must produce such a plan to graduate, a controversial idea championed by Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

In July, Chicago schools CEO Janice Jackson announced that the district would hire some 250 new social workers and special education case managers for schools.

Mentzinger said the value of sending in counselors who are employed by an outside agency, and not by the district, is that they have fewer administrative duties and so can cast a “wider net” among master’s degree candidates who might have non-traditional degrees such as art therapy or dance. “The level of need of our kids — we need to have more layers, more layers of work.”

A recent Steinmetz High School graduate, Emily Jade Aguilar, told Chalkbeat on Election Day that she was knocking on doors to get out the vote. Aguilar, who identifies as a trans woman, said the biggest issue driving her activism was mental health for students. “We need more mental health resources in our schools,” said Aguilar, whose school had four counselors for 1,200 students last year.

According to federal data from the 2015-16 school year, Chicago had 2.8 guidance counselors, social workers, and psychologists for every 1,000 students — fewer than in many other large cities. National guidance counselors and social workers groups recommend having one counselor and one social worker each for every 250 students. In schools with “intensive” needs, that ratio falls to one social worker for every 50 students.

In addition to providing counselors, Communities in Schools brokers relationships between nonprofit organizations and 160 schools to provide art and enrichment, mental health services, health care and college and career readiness programming.