Dusty Rhodes

Reporter - Education Desk

After a long career in newspapers (Dallas Observer, The Dallas Morning News, Anchorage Daily News, Illinois Times), Dusty returned to school to get a master's degree in multimedia journalism. She began work as Education Desk reporter at NPR Illinois in September 2014. But it's not her years of experience or her education that help her understand this beat. It's her sons -- "one homemade, one adopted" -- who have vastly different types of intelligence and vastly different learning styles. Between the two of them, she's experienced public, charter, Montessori and magnet schools, gifted, IEP and 504 accommodations, and uncountable band concerts, science fairs, basketball games, and parent/teacher conferences. It's the parent/teacher conferences that always make her cry.

Courtesy of Anne Stava-Murray

If you've got kids, you may have gotten the call to come to the school immediately because your child forgot to wear a belt, or lost his asthma inhaler, or argued with his teacher. For some hourly employees, making a quick trip to their kid's school could cost them their job.

But a bill awaiting Gov. J.B. Pritzker's signature would provide protection for workers who need to attend a parent-teacher conference or any other important meeting at their child’s school.

Jessica Freeman / Community Unity

Springfield will host an unusual basketball tournament later this month, designed to have a lasting effect on the players long after the games are over.

It’s an idea cooked up by former basketball coach Al Klunick. He came up with the notion about 10 years ago, when he was scrolling through YouTube, looking for videos about his hometown, and stumbled upon a documentary that shocked him: a four-part series about a race riot in Springfield.

“I can’t believe that I grew up on the North End, born and raised, lived here all my life, and didn’t know the true history,” Klunick says.

albertogp123 / flickr.com

The Illinois State Board of Education has decided to review the slate of standardized tests students take, to try to make sure the exams align with each other.

Currently, kindergarteners are evaluated by one test, then elementary students with another, and high school juniors with a third. All those tests measure different concepts, making it difficult to see where the curriculum needs to be improved. 

Amanda Elliott, legislative affairs director with the state board, says the current system causes many districts to implement additional tests.

illinoisreportcard.com

Who should pay pension costs for Illinois teachers and school administrators? Currently, the state bears virtually all the cost, leaving the state’s 852 school districts free to negotiate benefits without worrying about the price tag. 

As Statewide listeners heard earlier this month, the education advocacy group called Stand For Children hopes to persuade lawmakers to shift pension costs to districts by integrating them in the new school funding formula. The group’s legislative director, Jessica Handy, calls that an “equity boost.”

This week, we bring you the response from the Illinois Education Association — the state’s largest teachers union — whose lobbyist, Will Lovett, spoke with our education reporter Dusty Rhodes.

A report released today by the Illinois State Board of Education shows most kindergarteners in the state start school unprepared. The Kindergarten Individual Development Survey, known by the acronym KIDS, has teachers observe their students during the first 40 days of school to assess math, language and literacy, plus social and emotional readiness. 

Similar to last year’s survey, the results show only 26 percent of students are ready in all three areas. Almost 40 percent failed to demonstrate readiness in any of the three developmental areas.

graduation ceremony
WOSU Public Media / flickr

Low-income college students in Illinois got some good news today. The state's Monetary Award Program — which provides MAP grants to help pay for tuition — will be able to give more grants with more money, thanks to the largest appropriation in the fund’s history.

Lynne Baker, with the Illinois Student Assistance Commission, says the agency approved a new formula that will boost grants by an average of $220 and cover at least 6,700 more students.

Courtesy of Stand For Children

When Illinois revamped its school funding formula in 2017, lawmakers didn’t touch the teacher pension system. That means it’s still operating under the same inequitable framework that led to the push for school funding reform in the first place.

Now, an influential advocacy group is warning those inequities will be compounded if the state doesn’t address the teacher pension system soon.

Courtesy of Lincoln Elementary School in Pana, IL

The legislative session that wrapped up a few days ago was dominated by debates over weighty topics like preserving abortion rights, legalizing recreational cannabis sales, and changing the income tax structure of the state.

But out of the spotlight, some comparatively smaller changes were considered for the public education system.

Chris Chen 陳依勤 / Flickr Creative Commons CC BY-ND 2.0

Illinois school teachers may see a salary bump thanks to legislation poised for passage in the legislature. In education circles, this measure is nicknamed the “40k bill,” because it would make $40,000 the minimum salary for teachers by the time school starts in fall 2023. That means salaries would begin ramping up in fall 2020, to a minimum of $32,000.

Juan Ignacio Sánchez Lara / Flickr Creative Commons CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

When Illinois overhauled its school funding formula almost two years ago, it took so much time and effort that lawmakers built in a provision designed to make changes easier in the future. It shows up near the end of the 550-page law, with the creation of the Professional Review Panel — a group of stakeholders and experts empowered to recommend recalibrations of the law.

 

But a measure moving through the legislature now, would recalibrate the Review Panel itself, by giving Gov. J.B. Pritzker power to appoint a chair and vice-chair.

Dusty Rhodes / NPR Illinois

The Illinois legislature has approved a measure that would allow public school nurses to provide the life-saving medication glucagon to diabetic students in emergency situations.

As we recently reported, Jennifer Jacobs saved a 7th grader who was experiencing a severe hypoglycemic episode by using another student's supply of glucagon — a hormone that triggers the body to release stored glucose.

Courtesy of repmmurphy.com

Pleasant Plains is a small but prosperous town about 15 minutes northwest of Springfield. Its schools are all rated “commendable,” and their test results outshine state averages in every subject.

And yet, in March, the high school principal, Luke Brooks, asked Illinois lawmakers to stop requiring algebra.

Equality Illinois

Illinois' MAP grants — the monetary award program for low-income college students — would be available to more students if a bill approved by the legislature this month becomes law. MAP grants are currently unavailable students who don't qualify for federal financial aid. In Illinois, that includes about 1,200 students who immigrated to the US as children.

Wikimedia Commons

Last year, a school nurse in East Moline faced a moral dilemma when a diabetic student lost consciousness in her office. Now she’s trying to make sure no other school nurse has to face the same tough choice.

Low blood sugar can usually be cured with orange juice and a granola bar. But those snacks and glucose tabs weren’t helping the 7th grader sitting in Jennifer Jacobs’ office.

“Her blood sugar kept falling, and we kept pushing the snacks,” Jacobs says.

inslidelockdown.com

Illinois school administrators hoping to protect staff and students against the threat of an active shooter could get a new addition to their toolkit — devices designed to quickly barricade classroom doors during an emergency situation.

But that tool would come with its own set of problems.

Matt Perez, the State Fire Marshal, today warned lawmakers that any lock handy enough to be grabbed in a crisis could also be used by, for example, the shooter, or even one student wanting to bully a classmate.

illinoisreportcard.com

A clause in the 2017 school funding reform law was designed to provide property tax relief. But after one year of implementation, the State Board of Education is suggesting lawmakers might want to reconsider.

Under Illinois’ previous school funding structure, most of the burden fell on property owners. The 2017 law was designed to shift more of that load to the state, with an additional $350 million going mainly to the neediest districts. But $50 million of that was set aside to abate taxes in districts that were squeezing homeowners too hard.

Dusty Rhodes on stage
Mark Verduin / NPR Illinois

Watch and Listen to NPR Illinois reporter Dusty Rhodes during Stink Bug Night.

Courtesy of Illinois Public Media

Authorities are investigating an anonymous letter threatening the lives of anyone in line to receive state-funded pensions. The letter was mailed to several legislators and at least one public radio station. In big letters, the mailing says “Dead people can’t collect fat state pensions,” and goes on to warn lawmakers and union leaders of death by arson, strangulation or other unspecified means.

Dusty Rhodes / NPR Illinois

While Illinois is struggling with a teacher shortage, some potential teachers are finding barriers to getting a license. Our education reporter Dusty Rhodes introduces us to one of those aspiring teachers.

 

Carter Staley / NPR Illinois

 The Illinois State Board of Education this week hosted a conversation on possible solutions to the state’s teacher shortage. We discussed the highlights on Statewide.

Carter Staley / NPR Illinois

The Illinois State Board of Education used their monthly meeting Wednesday to host a conversation on possible solutions to the state’s worsening teacher shortage. The board is looking for ways to maintain high quality standards without discouraging potential teachers from entering the profession.

 

Afterwards, the agency’s chief education officer, Ralph Grimm, said there is no single solution.

 

“Two and a half hours of testimony I think really reinforced to the board how deep and structural the teacher shortage issue really is across the state, that its effects are felt differently in different parts of the state, but all over the state,” he said.

CollegeDegrees360 / flickr.com

Illinois lawmakers today rejected legislation that could have made it easier for former felons to apply for college. Popularly known as a “ban the box” bill, it would have prevented colleges from asking about criminal history on basic application forms.

Once a student is admitted, colleges would still be allowed to consider criminal history for housing and participation in campus activities.

 

But State Rep. Jeff Keicher (R-Sycamore), said it was still dangerous.

Student athletes in gym
Mark Ambrose

Illinois has 852 school districts — the third highest number of any state in the nation. Some are just single schools, with fewer than a hundred students. But getting districts to merge, or consolidate, has proven difficult.

Tom Magliery / flickr.com

Every baby born in Illinois could get a tiny college savings account under a plan that passed the state House of Representatives Wednesday. The proposal comes from the state treasurer’s office, as a way to  encourage families to start planning for their children's college education.

Beginning in 2021, each baby born or adopted in Illinois would automatically receive a 529 college savings account with $50 deposited by the treasurer's office.

Wall of framed board member head shots
Dusty Rhodes / NPR Illinois

A few months ago, the Illinois State Board of Education voted to ask lawmakers for $15.6 billion to fund public schools. Now, a newly appointed board wants to change that request, to ask for just under $9 billion.

These board members were appointed by Gov. J.B. Pritzker, so it's no surprise that the $8.9 billion request they’re proposing aligns almost perfectly with Pritzker's budget.

State Rep. Will Guzzardi midshot
Dusty Rhodes / NPR Illinois | 91.9 UIS

Graduate students who work as research assistants alongside university professors could win the right to go on strike. Current law excludes them from being counted as employees. But a proposal to change that (HB253​)   was approved by the Illinois House of Representatives last week.

Several Republican state representatives argued giving them that right would raise college costs. State Rep. Keith Wheeler (R-Oswego) argued the measure could eventually lead to higher tuition prices for undergraduates.

 

Courtesy of Bradley Bourbonnais Community High School

Illinois lawmakers are considering a variety of bills that would change the requirements to earn a teaching certificate.

 

Right now, to become a licensed teacher in Illinois, you have to pass at least three tests.

State Week logo (capitol dome)
Brian Mackey

Among the subjects discussed this week: medical and recreational marijuana, an anti-abortion rally at the capitol building, Illinois' teacher shortage, and legalizing sports gambling.

Carter Staley / NPR Illinois

Illinois lawmakers have proposed a variety of plans to tackle the state's severe teacher shortage. This week, State Sen. Andy Manar (D-Bunker Hill), bundled three popular concepts into one bill.​

"These are three things that I hear almost in complete unison from teachers across the state, in small rural districts to larger districts, that in different ways impact the profession,” he told the Senate education committee.

Those three things:

students at school
West 40 Regional Safe Schools

Almost two years after Illinois overhauled its school funding formula, educators are still trying to tie up a few loose ends that got overlooked in the 540-page legislation. One of those loose ends omitted funding for about 7,000 students.

Those kids are the ones who need what's called "alternative school," because they've struggled with discipline or truancy, and fallen behind. Many alternative schools are run by regional offices, rather than traditional school districts. And those regional offices weren't incorporated in the overhaul plan.

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