Everyone loves a good shout out, right? Especially when it’s for something that makes our community a better place.

That’s why I love the special Kindness Shout Outs we have at Beard Elementary on Chicago’s Northwest Side.

When a student gets “caught being kind” we recognize them for that wonderful act and put it on a bulletin board for everyone to see. I can confirm that students LOVE these shout outs for being a good friend to their classmates.

At the end of the week, the student gets to take home their shout out. We also share images with parents so they can celebrate their child’s kindness too.

These acts of kindness and recognition have helped bring joy and positivity to our school community, a welcome sense of happiness given the pandemic and challenges of the past year.

The Teach Kindness program helped us elevate our work and make students feel loved and connected during this disjointed time. It has really motivated them to be better in the classroom, to each other, and as a community. And our school community was recently “caught being kind” and honored with the 2020-2021 Kind School Award, recognition we’re so proud of!

For other educators looking to make a difference at their school, I can honestly say that even though this has been a difficult year, participating in Teach Kindness is not adding more work to your plate, it’s adding more joy to your day. Bringing positivity and kindness to your school is totally doable – and it really does make school a happier place!

I hope you can make shout outs like this a part of your school’s culture. I’m so glad we have. And the students and staff here at Beard continue to make the days brighter and kinder for everyone – something we could all use a little more of these days.

P.S.: Learn more Teach Kindness and the other schools honored with the 2020-2021 Kind Schools award. Teach Kindness is open to all Illinois schools, so any educator looking to learn more should reach out to Brandi Watts at Stand for more information.

With all the news and the disruption we’ve experienced these past 20 months, one simple but powerful thing helped students at Palmer Elementary make it through remote learning and return safely to classrooms: kindness.

And while things are getting better, both in our school buildings and in many of our communities, the effects of the pandemic are still being felt by many students and staff.

During remote learning, we saw an increase in students exhibiting behaviors related to depression, anxiety, and even suicide ideation. Some of this behavior has even returned this school year.

Students as well as educators were hungry for connection and support. Teaching kindness made connecting easier. Students communicated better. Bickering and miscommunication decreased. They were kinder to each other and to school staff.

Kindness helped our students deal with the uncertainty and turmoil of the pandemic. The Teach Kindness lessons were essential to our school community. They gave us a common language for everyone to share. They made it easier for students to speak up if they or their classmates were not being treated properly.

The positive impact it has had on our school culture cannot be overstated. Not only that, our hard work and focus on kindness was recognized with the 2020-2021 Kind School Award!

Making the world a kinder place has helped in the classrooms, in the hallways, and in the community. It helped here and can help in any Illinois school.

P.S.: Read more about the other Illinois schools honored with the Teach Kindness 2020-2021 Kind Schools award. Teach Kindness is open to all Illinois schools, so any educator looking to learn more should reach out to Brandi Watts at Stand for more information.

“Coming to Wagoner is like coming to a Grand Opening!”

When a new student told me they felt that way walking into school each day, it stopped me in my tracks and reaffirmed my commitment to making our school community a kind place.

As the principal at Wagoner Elementary, I can say that kindness is not just a word to us – it has truly become a part of our DNA. We talk about it. We live it.

We’ve lived kindness so much so that we were honored as the 2019 Teach Kindness National Champion, recognition for the hard work and commitment of every person in our school and neighboring community.

When the pandemic hit shortly after that recognition, it only reinforced our dedication to kindness. Through remote learning and as students began returning in-person last school year, we re-doubled our efforts in each classroom (online and in-person). It was an overwhelming time for everyone – it still is in many respects – but focusing on kindness helped alleviate some of the stress for students and staff. We’re so honored that this work was recognized again with the 2020-2021 Kind School Award!

Social-emotional learning has been a core part of our identity for years now, but the Teach Kindness program helped us elevate that work. The resources, supports, and lessons were a tipping point for our school, helping us take our work to the next level.

In fact, when you’re submerged in kindness as a matter of course, it’s so much easier to be kind in return. From our morning Community Circles to a Kindness Tree we added to our hallway, Wagoner has made kindness central to who we are. Everyone is bought in.

Our school’s unofficial motto is “you are loved and you are safe.” When a school makes a commitment to kindness, the outcomes can be overwhelming and heartwarming, just like that student’s Grand Opening feeling.

My wish is for every student, no matter their school, to have that same feeling every day.

P.S.: Read more about Teach Kindness and the other schools honored with the 2020-2021 Kind Schools award today. Teach Kindness is open to all Illinois schools, so any educator looking to learn more should reach out to Brandi Watts at Stand for more information.

With the holidays fast approaching, I thought now was the perfect time for us to highlight something we can all celebrate: kindness.

In 2017, Stand and other valued partner organizations launched Teach Kindness, a suite of best-in-class social-emotional learning activities, to help schools teach students the skill of kindness. We knew then that social and emotional skills were essential to healthy child development, but we did not know that a global pandemic would exacerbate the need for those skills both across the country and right here in Illinois. In the past year and a half, teachers have taken on more than ever, and still, many have remained committed to teaching students to be kind.

We are pleased to honor six Illinois schools with the 2020-2021 Kind Schools award, highlighting their dedication to ensuring a safe and caring environment for their students and staff by teaching kindness.

  • Daniel C. Beard Elementary School
  • Edmund Burke Elementary School
  • George Washington Carver Elementary School
  • John Fiske Elementary School
  • John M. Palmer Elementary School
  • Wagoner Elementary School

Over the next few days, you’ll hear stories directly from these schools about the impact kindness has had on their school communities. The pandemic has made personal connections and student engagement both more difficult and more important, whether learning remotely or in-person. These schools went above and beyond in their implementation of Teach Kindness, with tangible, positive results to show for it.

Teach Kindness is available to any school community free of charge. The program provides access to research-based tools and resources to schools looking to incorporate kindness into the school day and make kindness a practical, commonplace skill for students.

For the better part of my time at Stand, a huge focus of mine has been improving the course offerings and opportunities for Illinois high school students in the most equitable way possible. From career and technical education to dual credit classes, I’ve been eating, sleeping, and breathing this stuff for years.

And today I’m proud to announce our latest project: the Dual Credit Advocacy Toolkit. Take a look for yourself!

This toolkit makes it possible for parents, educators, administrators, and community members to advocate for better dual credit opportunities in their school communities. Not only that, but it offers each person an individualized advocacy plan depending on their dual credit goal.

So whether you’re a teacher looking to get certified to teach dual credit at your school or a parent looking to make dual credit classes more affordable in your district, this advocacy toolkit has a plan for you. With just a few clicks and by telling us your goal, the Stand Advocacy Toolkit provides you with the steps and tips to help you achieve your advocacy goal.

This toolkit is the culmination of work put in by so many parents, students, and educators whose collective experience and dedication to equity made this possible. It’s through their work that we compiled these resources in a useful manner. We thank them and the Joyce Foundation for their continued support of our dual credit work and this toolkit.

It’s my hope, and the hope of all of us here at Stand, that the Stand Dual Credit Advocacy Toolkit provides the resources you need to grow your school’s dual credit programming. Working together, I know that we can improve the outlook for Illinois students across the state.

I’ve been casually hearing about Illinois’ proposed Culturally Responsive Teaching and Leading (CRTL) Standards for months (like, at a board meeting or in the context of the ongoing effort to diversify Illinois’ not-very-diverse pool of educators), but it seems like over the last week, talk of the Standards has exploded. And as with many fast-moving stories, the accuracy has not always been spot on. In this blog, I’ll try to clear up some of the confusion by introducing the role of teaching standards, talking specifically about what’s in the proposed CRTL standards, and explaining the strange process for adopting teaching standards in Illinois.

So… What are Standards Anyway?

You hear about “Standards” a lot in education, from learning standards to professional teaching standards. They outline a framework for learners, teachers, administrators, or educator preparation programs. Standards are set in Administrative Rules, which means they do not have the force of law like legislation that passes the House and Senate and gets the Governor’s signature.

Learning standards are a benchmark to guide what students should be able to do at what grade level, but they don’t prescribe any curriculum.

Professional teaching standards establish a framework for educator preparation programs to align with for program approval – again not prescribing their curriculum or student curriculum — but putting some guardrails in place to make sure programs are high-quality and prepare teachers for the challenges of their profession.

Illinois’ current professional teaching standards include sections on teaching diverse students, content area and pedagogical knowledge, differentiating instruction, learning environment, communication, instructional delivery, assessment, collaborative relationships, and professionalism. The CRTL Standards build upon the framework that is already outlined in the sections on teaching diverse students and collaborative relationships.

What are the Culturally Responsive Teaching and Leading Standards?

The story of the Culturally Responsive Teaching and Leading Standards started under Republican Governor Rauner’s administration in 2018. The Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) was among 10 state education agencies which participated in an initiative of the Council of Chief State School Officers which sought solutions to diversify teacher pipelines and ensure that teachers be prepared to teach a multi-cultural population of students and embrace students’ race and ethnicity as an asset in their learning.

This is especially important for Illinois because over 80% of Illinois’ teachers are white, educating a student population that is less than half white. Teacher diversity has not kept pace with changes in student diversity, and rates of retention for Black teachers are lower than white teachers. Diversity matters: having just one Black teacher in grades 3-5 boosts Black boys’ odds of graduating high school by 30%; for very low-income Black boys, it’s 40%.

This initial conversation spurred creation of the Illinois Diverse and Learner-Ready Teacher Network, a group of Illinois educators who came together to carry on the conversation at the state-level. How can we make sure that Illinois teacher candidates enter classrooms prepared to support and empower their students, no matter the students’ race, ethnicity, national origin, language, religion, physical ability, income status, sexual orientation, or gender identity? It was through this lens that the Network produced recommendations for Culturally Responsive Teaching and Leading Standards.

There have been multiple versions and changes to these since they were first proposed. Most of the confusion I have been hearing recently actually links to an old version. ISBE already removed some of the language that is receiving pushback, like changing “progressive” to “inclusive” and “activism” to “advocacy.” Here’s the most recent public draft, though it is likely that the Joint Committee on Administrative Rules (JCAR) will suggest some edits as well (see the next section for more on that).) The CRTL Standards define what it means to be a culturally responsive teacher; educator prep programs must demonstrate alignment to the standards during the program approval process after October 1, 2021. Programs that are already approved would have until October 1, 2025.

According to CRTL, the culturally responsive teacher or leader would exhibit competencies in several areas:

  1. Self-awareness and relationships to others. These standards include things like understanding that multiple lived experiences exist, approaching students with an asset-based mindset, affirming students’ backgrounds and identities, educating themselves about students’ home cultures, and assessing their own biases.
  2. Systems of oppression. This includes understanding the differences between racism, prejudice, and discriminationbeing aware of the effects of power and privilege, and understanding how systems of inequity create rules about student punishment that has negatively impacted students of color.
  3. Students as individuals. A culturally responsive teacher would value their students as individuals within the context of their families and communities, engage their students’ families and communities outside the classroom, provide parents with information about the expectations for their children at school, and set holistic goals that accommodate multiple ways for students to show their strengths and demonstrate success.
  4. Students as co-creators. The standards include believing that all students are capable, encouraging and affirming personal experiences students share in class, making authentic connection between academic learning and students’ prior knowledge and culture, soliciting student input in curriculum content, and creating student leadership opportunities.
  5. Leveraging student advocacy. This includes supporting and creating opportunities for student advocacy, guiding students to form self-advocacy plans to inform their decisions, helping students identify actions to apply learning to develop opportunities for student experience, creating risk-taking spaces, holding high expectations, and giving students space to solve their own problems.
  6. Family and community collaboration. Culturally responsive educators regularly interact with and seek perspectives from families, foster connections between students and the outside community, use culturally responsive practices to value students and their traditions when motivating them, welcome and respond to communication from families, and invite families to teach about culturally significant topics.
  7. Content selection in curricula. The standards include intentionally embracing student identities and prioritizing their representation in the curriculum, ensuring assessments reflect this enriched curriculum, encouraging inclusive viewpoints and perspectives that leverage asset-thinking toward traditionally marginalized communities, selecting texts that reflect students’ cultures, and use a resource tool to assess curriculum and assessments for bias.
  8. Student representation in the learning environment. Culturally responsive teachers ensure diversity of their student population is represented in the learning environment, including linguistic diversity and inclusive building décor. Exceptionally culturally responsive teachers provide exposure to under- and mis-represented groups even when those cultures are not present in the student population.

What is the Process for Adopting the Standards?

The standards are set forth in ISBE’s Administrative Rules, which are proposed by the agency and allowed or denied by a legislative commission known as “JCAR.” JCAR is made up of equal representation of House and Senate members, and Democrats and Republicans; that’s different than the partisan split of the legislature, where Democrats hold supermajorities. The process is also quite different than passing a bill through the legislature. The 12 members (six Democrats and six Republicans) of JCAR are the only legislators who will take action on a proposed Rule.

The process (outlined here) requires agencies to provide at least a 45-day public comment period after the first notice of the proposed Rules. Then, the agency will collect feedback, make changes, and submit the modified Rule proposal to JCAR for a second notice. Only changes agreed to by JCAR and the agency can be made at this point. Finally, the Rules come before JCAR at a board meeting. To block a proposed Rule, a three-fifths majority vote of JCAR members is needed.

As for the CRTL Standards, here’s their timetable.

  • December 2019: Diverse and Learner Ready Teacher Network submitted recommended standards
  • June 2020: ISBE presented Rules based on those recommendations to the Board, which approved them for public comment
  • December 2020: ISBE presented changes based on feedback from public comment and voted to submit the proposed Rules to JCAR for its “second notice”.
  • February 16, 2021: JCAR meets and is expected to take action on the CRTL Standards

1/12/2021 UPDATE: The bill has now passed both chambers and will head to the Governor for his signature! Amendment 3 made a few additional changes before it passed, most notably removing the changes to the Invest in Kids Act altogether, launching a feasibility study to consider the appropriate agency home for the Workforce Investment Act program (rather than moving it to IDES), and adding a literacy focus and some parameters to the Freedom Schools section.

1/9/2021 UPDATE: Amendment 2 has been filed. The major difference is that some components have been removed: the Equity in Early Childhood Education Act, the anti-racism grants within the Evidence-Based Funding Formula (which the Professional Review Panel will now consider, instead), the provisions to lengthen the school year for learning recovery, and the driver’s license stuff (which I’m guessing found a more appropriate home in a criminal justice bill). These were all good things; they will live to fight another day. We get it that it’s a careful balancing act when deciding what all goes into a huge package like this and, at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter what’s in there if it can’t get 60 votes in the House and 30 in the Senate.

There are some additions of other good stuff, most notably an Inclusive American History Commission and some fleshing out about periods of Black History that have to be taught. It adds prioritization for National Board Certified Teachers stipends to rural and diverse candidate cohort facilitators, and shift administration of the Workforce Investment Act from the Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity to the Department of Employment Security.

***

For months, education champion and rockstar negotiator Sen. Kimberly A. Lightford has brought together education and racial justice advocates to craft a nearly 500-page amendment to advance racial equity in Illinois schools, from birth through college. This week, she filed the legislation, compiling dozens of policy changes with the goal of reversing centuries of systemic racism in education and significantly bolstering opportunities for Black students.

This bill is jam-packed with good policy ideas, many of which Stand for Children supported as individual concepts and which we are now pleased to support as an overall package. The summary below walks through everything that is in there as of today, starting with a few of my favorites and eventually getting to everything. (If things change substantially, I’ll pop back over here with some updates over the next few days as well.)

ACADEMIC ACCELERATION

Based on a Washington state law that tripled the percentage of Black high school students in advanced courses, this policy requires schools to automatically enroll students who meet or exceed standards into the next most rigorous course. Students who are automatically enrolled can choose to opt out if a different course better fits their goals. It does not remove any of the existing pathways for enrollment into advanced courses, but it removes any element of implicit bias and opens doors for more students to eventually access courses that earn them early college credit. (pages 62 – 67. See our factsheet here.)

EQUITABLE COURSEWORK FOR COLLEGE ACCESS

No matter where they go to high school, all students should have access to the recommended courses needed for admission into any public university in Illinois. This provision requires the Illinois Board of Higher Education (IBHE) to report college admission coursework recommendations. Students must have access to these recommended courses. Schools can fulfill the requirement to provide it by offering it in house or partnering with a neighboring district, community college, or other course provider. The bill also adds a requirement that the science courses required for graduation be laboratory sciences, and, with a long implementation period to allow teacher pipeline reforms to work, adds two years of foreign language to the graduation requirements. (pages 42 – 49. See our factsheet here.)

EQUITY IN EARLY EDUCATION ACT

Deleted. But stay tuned for this spring… We’ll be working on this! See our factsheet here.

COMPUTER SCIENCE AND LITERACY

The bill defines computer science and directs ISBE to create computer science standards. It requires high schools to offer computer science to student who want it. The graduation requirements are modified to require one course to include a focus in computer literacy. Schools must provide students with opportunities for developmentally appropriate computer literacy skills beginning in elementary school. (pages 49 – 62)

EVIDENCE-BASED FUNDING

The monumental 2017 overhaul of the school funding formula also included a provision creating a Professional Review Panel (PRP) to monitor the formula throughout implementation. HB 2170 would charge the PRP with reviewing the adult-to-student ratios specified in the cost factors to determine whether it accurately reflects staffing needed to support students in poverty, changes in cost factors to promote racial equity, the impact of investing $350 million each year, an overview of alternative funding structures, and potential efficiencies within the system, appropriate funding levels for re-enrolling students who previously dropped out, and evidence-based practices that reduce academic achievement gaps for Black students. (pages 149 – 151)

LEARNING RECOVERY

HB 2170 charges the P-20 Council with considering long-term and short-term learning recovery strategies, including a plan to address the digital divide; evaluate the impact of school closures and remote learning on student outcomes; establish a system for the collection of data; and ensure more time for students’ academic, social emotional, and mental health needs. (pages 67 – 77)

SOCIAL-EMOTIONAL HEALTH

The Whole Child Task Force is created to establish equitable, inclusive, safe, and supported environment in all schools, taking steps to ensure every child has access to educators and social workers trained in evidence-based interventions and restorative practices. (pages 26 – 34) The Freedom Schools fund would provide grants, subject to appropriation, for enriching programs that affirm Black identity. (pages 77 – 81)

DIVERSE EDUCATOR PIPELINE

Four components address the shortage of teachers generally and Black teachers specifically (pages 179 – 208):

  • It removes the 3.0 GPA requirement to get into alternative licensure programs.
  • The Minority Teacher Initiative scholarship program is amended to increase priority funds for Black males, change the prioritization from first come/first serve to those who received scholarships the previous year and have demonstrated financial need, and create a set-aside for bilingual teachers as the appropriation for the program grows.
  • AIM HIGH is amended to reduce universities’ match requirement from 100%, with institutions with more low-income students kicking in 20% and those with fewer low-income students contributing 60%.
  • Finally, the Transitions in Education Act encourages ISBE, IBE, and ICCB to establish a task force for a Major Panel in Education, which would identify courses that would be accepted upon transfer.
  • The National Board Certified Teacher program would prioritize in awarding stipends to NBCT Candidate Cohort Trainers who work with rural and diverse candidates. (pages 252 – 258)

HIGHER EDUCATION ACCESS

Nearly half of full-time community college students are placed in developmental education courses, which do not earn college credit, upon starting college. For Black students, the number is even higher: 71% are funneled into developmental courses. Only 8% of Black students who are placed in developmental education courses will go on to graduate. The Developmental Education Reform Act creates a multiple measures approach to placement in credit-bearing college courses. Students who successfully complete a high school transitional course, earn a specific GPA, or meet certain thresholds on placement exams or standardized tests would be able to bypass developmental courses. Institutions must publicly post their placement policies, and ICCB and IBHE would consolidate the information into reports disaggregated by demographic data and by developmental course model. (pages 155 – 164)

The Equity in Higher Education Act outlines the General Assembly’s support for the IBHE strategic plan to close equity gaps, increase post-secondary degree attainment, and improve affordability. It encourages IBHE to prepare an array of policy changes needed for implementation of the plan by May 1, 2021. (pages 151 – 155)

EARLY CHILDHOOD

Many components of the bill deal with expansion of early childhood, increasing compensation for early childhood teachers, and improving the quality and equity of programs, including provisions to:

  • Codify the requirement for an annual valid, reliable, and developmentally appropriate kindergarten readiness assessment. ISBE currently uses the Kindergarten Individual Development Survey (KIDS) for this. (pages 1 – 11)
  • Allow children to continue receiving early intervention services after their third birthday until the school year starts and they have access to preschool. (pages 11 – 16)
  • Support the goals of the Commission on Equitable Early Childhood Education and Care Funding, which is working to create a more equitable and efficient system, consolidate programs into a single adequately staffed agency, ensure equitable and adequate funding, redesign payment mechanisms, and consider data collection needs. It would also encourage a timetable for the work with a designated body to implement recommendations. (pages 16 – 20)
  • Amend the Infant/Early Childhood Mental Health Consultation Act to encourage increasing availability of consultations, developing materials for providers and parents about the value of mental health consultations, and increasing funding for training and support. It also remedies a problem with diagnostic coding to remove barriers to developmentally appropriate assessments. (pages 34 – 39)
  • Create the Early Childhood Workforce Act to increase the early childhood teacher pipeline and its diversity. Under the Act, DHS, ISBE, and IBHE would each have a role in providing outreach and access to financial supports to increase the diversity of the pipeline, analysis on scholarship recipients, and barriers for early childhood teachers to complete coursework to earn credentials. (pages 40 – 42)
  • Encourage DHS to re-examine the definition of “at-risk” and the diagnosed medical conditions that typically result in a delay, charge the Early Intervention Training Program to create a plan for outreach, develop a plan for the State to launch early intervention specialized teams, and work in a public-private partnership to establish at least two demonstration sites with hospital neo-natal intensive care units. (pages 216 – 220)

INVEST IN KIDS

The Invest in Kids tax-credit scholarship program currently provides donors tax credits for donating to program, which provides private school scholarships to students in families below 300% of the federal poverty level. HB 2170 would add the ability for scholarships to be used at technical academies for Career and Technical Education programs. (pages 164 – 179)

DATA COLLECTION TO SUPPORT RACIAL JUSTICE

data collection provision, which requires the Governor’s Office and the Department of Innovation and Technology to jointly administer a governance to catalog data supporting major programs, identify similar fields in datasets, improve data quality, collect racial and ethnicity data, develop common process and legal approaches for data sharing, establishing common codes across datasets, and generally catalyzing the process to better interagency data analysis. (pages 20 – 26)

INCLUSIVE HISTORY CURRICULUM

The bill requires ISBE to adopt social science learning standards that are inclusive of all individuals in the country. An Inclusive American History Commission is created to review available resources for use in schools that reflect the diversity of the State, provide guidance on each learning standard on how to ensure instruction and curriculum are not bias to value specific cultures or experiences over others, and provide guidance on professional learning on how to utilize and locate non-dominant cultural narratives and sources. It also amends the Black History study requirement to add the pre-enslavement period and the American civil rights renaissance, and a study of the reasons why Black people came to be enslaved. (pages 208 – 214)

WORKFORCE INVESTMENT ACT ADMINISTRATION

The responsibilities and funding connected to the Workforce Investment Act are transferred from the Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity to the Department of Employment Security. (pages 214 – 252)

As a former teacher who recently left the classroom, I know I will never leave behind the education issues I care about. So when I began to explore my role as an advocate outside of the classroom, one program that jumped out at me was Stand’s Policy Fellowship. The detailed policy discussions, the conversations with advocates from across the state, and the chance to advocate and influence policy discussions all piqued my interest. The Fellowship has expanded my understanding of civic and political advocacy.

The 2017-2018 Fellowship focused on student college and career readiness in Illinois. While the majority of my previous work centered around elementary education, this experience allowed me to explore the opposite end of the education system.

Stand’s policy team provided regular informational workshops surrounding the impacts of the Post-Secondary Workforce Readiness (PWR) Act and the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). Additionally, we engaged with community members, elected officials, and experts in the field who deepened our understanding of the postsecondary landscape in Illinois – and where advocates like us could make a difference.

One conversation that I particularly enjoyed was with Katharine Gricevich of the Illinois Student Assistance Commission. Her discussion on higher education access and affordability resonated with my interest in advancing opportunities and outcomes for students from underserved areas.

I also had the opportunity to visit the Illinois Capitol with other Stand Fellows. While in Springfield we spoke with legislators about student college and career readiness. During these conversations, I was excited to learn that legislators were interested in hearing my perspective as a former educator. These discussions further encouraged my passion for advancing teacher voice and influence within political discourse.

As I reflect on these impactful conversations and experiences as a Stand Fellow, I am excited and motivated to continue my advocacy efforts.

Before participating in the Stand Fellowship, I was unsure of how to scale my advocacy impact. Now I am eager to continue my civic and political engagement efforts in support of educational excellence and equity.

I also hope to stay connected with Stand’s work in Illinois and the Fellows across the state. Their passion for education has deeply impacted my own work and approach to advocacy. I know that my advocacy will continue and that I will remain engaged with these issues in the future.

Last month, Stand for Children Policy Fellows Cymone Card, Abby Schultz, Dovie Shelby, and Kayla Valenti joined Stand staff on a visit to the state capital. This was a prime opportunity for the Fellows to meet up and make a difference together at the Capitol and also attend an insightful event that evening. While in Springfield, the group toured the Capitol building and had a chance to meet with several legislators to discuss education policy. That evening, the group attended a forum on school improvement hosted by Advance Illinois in partnership with other organizations, including Stand. At the forum, Rockford Public Schools, having received national recognition for developing community-aligned career academies, joined a panel discussion to share lessons from their own success.

Three of the Fellows, Abby, Kayla, and Cymone, shared their stories from the day. We hope you enjoy them and learn more about their advocacy and commitment to improving education in Illinois.

The atmosphere of Springfield was abuzz with the adrenaline and the anticipation of state government. We Fellows entered the stoic Capitol building with one eye on the décor and the other on the policy makers. Aimee and Jessica [ed note: Stand’s Policy & Government Affairs Manager and Government Affairs Director, respectively] guided us through the building, trying to connect us to our representatives and answering our many questions. With their help, I had the absolute pleasure in meeting State Senator Biss, whose down-to-earth approach to an (admittedly) giddy citizen (i.e. me) only increased my admiration of him. Meeting him, along with other elected officials, put a human side to politics. After all, the names behind policies are people, like me and like you. State government can be so accessible to Illinoisans if we know where to look–and if we take the time to reach out.

After touring the Capitol and meeting some inspirational people, the legislator forum on cradle to career education only added to this wonderful experience. Rockford has felt the effects of urbanization in its community, especially with Chicago so nearby. What their school board has done is quite innovative: investing in time, money, and community-centered opportunities in their high school students. By investing in their younger citizens, Rockford is giving students the incentive to stay in the area and use their talents to build their community as they delve into their post-secondary education and career. I hope to see other communities all around the U.S. do the same. By investing in education, by giving youth opportunities to start their post-secondary lives through accessible and affordable means, communities will thrive. Let’s hope Rockford is only the beginning of the ripple in connecting students to community.

–Abby Schultz

As a former fifth-grade teacher, I often wondered about how decisions regarding education were made. There were many political decisions and initiatives that had a direct impact on my classroom, however, I felt unsure of how to navigate conversations surrounding the complexities of the policy-making process. My experience as a Stand Policy Fellow has allowed me to develop the confidence to participate in an area that once felt overwhelming and intimidating. Traveling to Springfield and meeting with legislators at the Capital has motivated me to be a more active citizen and voice my opinions and concerns regarding education. I look forward to continuing my engagement in political discourse and advocacy-work that supports policies that best serve students. Whether that means setting up an appointment to meet with a representative, or further developing my own understanding of specific policies, I feel more confident to advocate for high-quality education in Illinois.

–Kayla Valenti

My time in Springfield was eye opening. I have been losing hope about the progress our country is making around education. However, my time in Springfield left me energized and excited. I was able to listen to wonderful speakers discuss how they collaborate to better the outcomes for children. Rockford is using an impressive model that brings different parts of the community together. One thing I have learned is that there is not a one size fits all solution for education. For example, what might work in New York City or Chicago may not work for Rockford or East St. Louis. Members of a community should learn from other communities that are successful. From there, a community can have a real conversation on what will work for their specific community. Collective impact can regenerate a community, and have very real and lasting impacts for children.

–Cymone Card

It would still be hard not to be. After a press conference two weeks ago and major confusion in the air (to say nothing of last week’s amendatory veto issued by Governor Rauner, which highlighted pensions), there are two big misconceptions that we’ve been hearing quite a bit and we’ll address them both here. But first…

A Crash Course on Pensions in Illinois

First, who pays? For our discussion, there are two key pensions systems: the Teachers’ Retirement System (TRS), which is paid for by the state and serves all teachers in Illinois, except for Chicago Public School (CPS) teachers, and the Chicago Teachers Pension Fund (CTPF), which is paid for by CPS.

Next, what’s a pension payment? Pension payments are best thought of as having two parts: the first is the normal cost payment, which is the cost of keeping up with pensions for the year, and the second is the unfunded liability payment which is essentially a debt payment to the fund to make up for years of smaller payments.

MYTH #1: Chicago asked to pay its own pensions in 1995 as a condition of getting block grants.

THE TRUTH: Chicago has paid its employer costs of its pension fund since the fund began. The State pays the employer cost for teacher pensions outside of Chicago for all other school districts. The State used to include some funding for CPS to use to make its pension payment. In fact, in 1997, a goal was added to state law declaring its intention to provide the Chicago Teachers’ Pension Fund “between 20% and 30%” of the amount it provides to the Teachers’ Retirement System (which covers all teachers’ pensions except Chicago’s). But last year, while TRS got $4 billion in state funds, CTPF got $0.

A 1995 law made major changes to how CPS operated, but it didn’t change who paid teacher pensions. The Chicago Block Grant was enacted as a way to maximize flexibility for CPS. Rather than reporting claims and getting reimbursed like other districts, the block grants were designed to reduce the paperwork. Now, most of us realize they are outdated and we should phase them out going forward, as SB1 does. But there was never any connection or deal between getting a block grant and paying for pensions.

MYTH #2: CPS’s ballooning pension unfunded liability will eat up everyone else’s school formula funds in the future.

THE TRUTH: The portion of CTPF unfunded liability payments that would be incorporated into the Base Funding Minimum is less than 1% of total. It’s also less than 1% of the total TRS payment the state will make this year. CTPF payments from now until 2059 will grow proportional to the cost of education overall; there is no upcoming cliff that would cause payments to jump disproportionally to the cost of payroll.

For more on how SB1 handles teacher pensions, Mike Jacoby from the Illinois Association of School Business Officials discusses it here.