Who Is In Charge

Obama at Ivy Tech: U.S. must 'be creative' to help students reach college

President Barack Obama urged a focus on training America’s future workforce by investing in younger students and reducing college costs at a speech today in Indianapolis at Ivy Tech Community College, the nation’s largest state community college system.

Obama touted his plan to offer two years of free community college to all students, first proposed in last month’s State of the Union address, as a key part of improving the economy for middle class. Obama’s stop in Indiana is one of a series of recent appearances for the president in Republican-led states like Idaho and Kansas.

“Here in America, it shouldn’t matter how much money your folks make,” Obama said. “You shouldn’t have $100,000 worth of debt when you leave (college), especially if you’re going to go into a profession like teaching.”

He also urged the nation’s state education leaders, from K-12 education to higher education, to work together to provide new, low-cost opportunities for students to earn credentials so they can enter the workforce earlier and earn higher wages.

“We have this very rigid system,” Obama said. “You go through high school, and right away you go to a four-year university. How do we create — from the time you are in ninth grade all the way until the time you’ve got a job — how do we make sure you’re going to get the best skills possible at the lowest cost? We have to be much more creative about these issues.”

Indiana state Superintendent Glenda Ritz, the only Democrat serving in statewide office, said she shared Obama’s desire to help “cash strapped” high school graduates and other adults afford college. She said students need to start preparing in high school for their next steps in life, and gain practical experience even before entering college to make sure they take advantage of their time and money.

That was her own story, Ritz said.

“I grew up in a family that had no money to send me to college,” she said. “I worked two to three jobs every summer. The minimum wage doesn’t do what it needs to do to get (today’s kids) through college. We’ve got to find ways to support our kids to ensure they get that training. I consider high school the beginning part of building a resume.”

The president urged colleges to work with high schools, businesses and government leaders to change the system. He thanked Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard for working with him on the president’s My Brother’s Keeper initiative, which includes plans to reduce dropout rates and improve low-performing schools.

Obama also stressed the importance of literacy and intervening early with struggling students to make sure more students are eligible for college.

Gov. Mike Pence, who greeted Obama at the Indianapolis International Airport when he arrived, said in a statement that states should take the lead on making college more affordable. He also said high schools need to do a better job getting students ready to be successful after they graduate.

“The best way to increase graduation rates is to make sure that our students are academically prepared for college and that colleges and universities encourage students to graduate on time with the least expense to them and their families,” he said.

Since Republicans control both houses of Congress, Obama’s plan could be in doubt. But Obama, who presented his budget plan to Congress earlier this week, urged Republican leaders not to block his plans simply because they can.

“If Republicans disagree with the way I’m trying to solve these problems, they should put forward their own plans,” Obama said.

Raise your voice

Memphis, what do you want in your next school superintendent?

PHOTO: Kyle Kurlick for Chalkbeat

Tennessee’s largest school district needs a permanent leader. What kind of superintendent do you think Shelby County Schools should be looking for?

Now is the chance to raise your voice. The school board is in the thick of finalizing a national search and is taking bids from search firms. Board members say they want a leader to replace former superintendent Dorsey Hopson in place within 18 months. They have also said they want community input in the process, though board members haven’t specified what that will look like. In the interim, career Memphis educator Joris Ray is at the helm.

Let us know what you think is most important in the next superintendent.  Select responses will be published.

Asking the candidates

How to win over Northwest Side voters: Chicago aldermen candidates hone in on high school plans

PHOTO: Cassie Walker Burke / Chalkbeat Chicago
An audience member holds up a green sign showing support at a forum for Northwest side aldermanic candidates. The forum was sponsored by the Logan Square Neighborhood Association.

The residents filing into the auditorium of Sharon Christa McAuliffe Elementary School Friday wanted to know a few key things from the eager aldermanic candidates who were trying to win their vote.

People wanted to know which candidates would build up their shrinking open-enrollment high schools and attract more students to them.

They also wanted specifics on how the aldermen, if elected, would coax developers to build affordable housing units big enough for families, since in neighborhoods such as Logan Square and Hermosa, single young adults have moved in, rents have gone up, and some families have been pushed out.

As a result, some school enrollments have dropped.

Organized by the Logan Square Neighborhood Association, Friday’s event brought together candidates from six of the city’s most competitive aldermanic races. Thirteen candidates filled the stage, including some incumbents, such as Aldermen Proco “Joe” Moreno (1st  Ward), Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th Ward), and Milly Santiago (31st Ward).

They faced tough questions — drafted by community members and drawn at random from a hat — about bolstering high school enrollment, recruiting more small businesses, and paving the way for more affordable housing.

When the audience members agreed with their positions, they waved green cards, with pictures of meaty tacos. When they heard something they didn’t like, they held up red cards, with pictures of fake tacos.

Red cards weren’t raised much. But the green cards filled the air when candidates shared ideas for increasing the pull of area open-enrollment high schools by expanding dual-language programs and the rigorous International Baccalaureate curriculum.

Related: Can a program designed for British diplomats fix Chicago schools? 

“We want our schools to be dual language so people of color can keep their roots alive and keep their connections with their families,” said Rossana Rodriguez, a mother of a Chicago Public Schools’ preschooler and one of challengers to incumbent Deb Mell in the city’s 33rd Ward.  

Mell didn’t appear at the forum, but another candidate vying for that seat did: Katie Sieracki, who helps run a small business. Sieracki said she’d improve schools by building a stronger feeder system between the area’s elementary schools, which are mostly K-8, and the high schools.

“We need to build bridges between our local elementary schools and our high schools, getting buy-in from new parents in kindergarten to third grade, when parents are most engaged in their children’s education,” she said.

Sieracki said she’d also work to design an apprenticeship program that connects area high schools with small businesses.

Green cards also filled the air when candidates pledged to reroute tax dollars that are typically used for developer incentives for school improvement instead.

At the end of the forum, organizers asked the 13 candidates to pledge to vote against new tax increment financing plans unless that money went to schools. All 13 candidates verbally agreed.

Aldermen have limited authority over schools, but each of Chicago’s 50 ward representatives receives a $1.32 million annual slush fund that be used for ward improvements, such as playgrounds, and also can be directed to education needs. And “aldermanic privilege,” a longtime concept in Chicago, lets representatives give the thumbs up or down to developments like new charters or affordable housing units, which can affect school enrollment.

Related: 7 questions to ask your aldermanic candidates about schools

Aldermen can use their position to forge partnerships with organizations and companies that can provide extra support and investment to local schools.

A January poll showed that education was among the top three concerns of voters in Chicago’s municipal election. Several candidates for mayor have recently tried to position themselves as the best candidate for schools in TV ads.