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.

Wikimedia Commons

More than a year ago, Illinois lawmakers approved a total overhaul of the way the state funds schools. That landmark legislation, known as “evidence-based funding,” got a lot of media attention. But at the same time, something else happened that went totally unreported: The state also changed the number of instructional hours required in a school day from five to zero.

Let’s be clear: The new law didn’t force any changes, so most districts carried on with their usual schedules. And as soon teachers unions noticed the five-hour requirement had been dropped, they began to lobby to reinstate it.

Dusty Rhodes / NPR Illinois

A survey released this week suggests Illinois’ teacher shortage is getting worse, not better. Eighty-five percent of superintendents who responded said they’re having a tough time finding qualified teachers to fill vacancies. That’s up from 78 percent in 2017.

Lawmakers have been scrambling to figure out how to recruit more teachers. State Rep. Sue Scherer, a Decatur Democrat, is holding a hearing Wednesday afternoon, focused on changing licensure standards for teachers.

Dusty Rhodes / NPR Illinois

There's an old saying that the hardest animal to kill is a school mascot. But Illinois lawmakers are taking a look at possibly thinning the herd.

 

Illinois has some school districts operating with only elementary grades, some with only high school grades, some with fewer than a hundred children — a total of 852 school districts. That's more than any other state except California and Texas, both of which have more than twice our population.

Does it matter?

A new father trying to provide for his family. A grandmother finishing what she started more than four decades ago. A man navigating multiple schools, hidden curriculums and financial hurdles. These are just some of the older students working toward a degree in the U.S.

Dusty Rhodes / NPR Illinois

Urbana school district has been in the news a lot lately for all the wrong reasons — on campus fights. Most publicity has pointed to the district's implementation of a new restorative justice discipline policy, along with a shuffle of administrative personnel, as the causes of the uptick in school violence.

But over the weekend, Urbana’s high schools newspaper The Echo pushed back against that popular narrative in an editorial titled Racism at the Root of Recent Urbana High School Coverage.

Students, teachers, staff and volunteers pose for photo in prison
Karl Soderstrom

Ro’Derick Zavala grew up in Chicago at 21st and State Street — the northern tip of a four-mile corridor lined with 8,000 units of public housing. His mother worked three jobs, including one at Walgreens, where she would pick up the Disney and Hanna Barbera books that inspired Zavala to fall in love with reading at a young age.

That passion should’ve made him a successful student. But on Chicago’s south side, in the 1980s, it was hard to find a safe place to go to school.

Kankakee Community College

Officials from each of Illinois' public universities traveled to the statehouse this week to tell lawmakers about their leaky roofs, outdated science labs and broken air conditioners, in hopes of getting funding to fix them. It’s part of a push toward a public works program, known in the legislature as a capital bill. Gov. J.B. Pritzker has promised the state will spend billions of dollars in infrastructure improvements, and public agencies are lining up to ask for a piece of that pie.

Courtesy of Illinois State Board of Education

Gov. J.B. Pritzker replaced most of the state board of education this week and appointed a new superintendent.

The board includes seven women and two men. The new superintendent, Carmen Ayala, is the first woman and the first person of color appointed to hold that position full-time.

"It's amazing. It's such an honor, I mean, it still hasn't hit me today,” she said. “Somebody texted and said, ‘You know, Carmen, today you made history in Illinois,’ and I was like wow! That's just amazing. It's an honor."

Dusty Rhodes / NPR Illinois

A measure gaining support in the Illinois legislature would have schools teach students the concept of consent in sexual relationships.

 

Beyond “no-means-no,” this law would require any sex ed course offered in grades 6 through 12 to include a comprehensive definition of consent. For example: Consent to one activity doesn't constitute consent to another activity. Consent to sexual activity in the past doesn’t equate to consent in the future. A person's manner of dress or lack of active resistance don't imply consent. Consent can be withdrawn at any time.

https://www.flickr.com/photos/chicagoarchitecturetoday/7541118788

When Gov. J.B. Pritzker rolled out his budget proposal on Wednesday, he acknowledged that he needs more than $1 billion in new revenue to make it work. The question is: Where will he find all that dough?

Carter Staley / NPR Illinois

In his budget address today, Gov. J.B. Pritzker listed education as one of his top three priorities, requesting increased funding for programs across the educational spectrum, from babies to grade school to colleges and universities.

Now all he has to do is persuade lawmakers to go along with his plan to pay for it.

shape of Illinois in coins
Carter Staley / NPR Illinois

Gov. J.B. Pritzker delivered his first budget address at a time of acute fiscal distress for the state of Illinois. It also comes after Democrats have taken total control of the executive and legislative branches of state government, including supermajorities in the Illinois House and Senate.

For this week's Illinois Issues report, NPR Illinois reporters analyzed the governor's speech:

Dusty Rhodes / NPR Illinois

For years, high school graduates have fled Illinois to attend out-of-state colleges in such massive numbers, only New Jersey loses more. So State Rep. André Thapedi (D-Chicago) came up with an idea to try to keep top students here. He filed a bill that would give high school students who graduate in the top 10 percent of their class — and achieve certain standardized test scores — guaranteed admission at Illinois public universities.

Tucker Launer

The Illinois State Board of Education is warning schools they may not get reimbursed for free- and reduced-price lunch programs if the federal government goes into another shutdown.

Federal funds for school lunches flow through the State Board of Education, which then reimburses school districts and other programs. At the moment, ISBE has enough cash to get through April, but Jeff Aranowski, director of health and safety at the agency, says there’s no guarantee they’ll get their third quarter payment.

If that money doesn’t come through, the agency will be able to meet only about 40 percent of the need.

www.oprfhs.org

More than two dozen school districts learned last week that they're eligible for property tax relief grants from the Illinois State Board of Education. Most of those districts have inadequate funding. But a few already exceed what's needed to provide a good education.

UIS Campus Relations

Among a slew of bills filed this week as the General Assembly opened its new session was a proposal to give $50 million to Southern Illinois University. The money would be used to build a public policy center in downtown Springfield.

Carter Staley / NPR Illinois

When Illinois adopted a new school funding formula in 2017, it was the culmination of a multi-years-long effort involving a handful of complicated proposals. So perhaps it’s no surprise that a few details slipped through the cracks. But one of those details was pretty big; it was the school clock.

What counts as a school day? Well, five clock hours of instructional time has been the law of the land in Illinois as long as anybody can remember. That’s enough for a half dozen classes, plus a passing period and lunch. But for reasons that no one has stated on the record, that provision disappeared when the new school funding formula took effect, leaving the minimum number of required instructional hours at zero.

Two students in lab
Dusty Rhodes / NPR Illinois

College has traditionally been the place young adults get the education they need to pursue their life’s calling. At one of Chicago’s City Colleges, there’s a program for student’s whose life calling deals with death.

Alycia Adams attends Malcolm X College, which is strategically located near Chicago’s medical district, and specializes in the health sciences. But unlike most of her classmates at Malcolm X, Adams isn’t learning anything about saving lives.

“It started with a guinea pig, in third grade,” she says. “I had the responsibility of taking care of it over the summer, and they don’t live long, and so it died.”

Dusty Rhodes / NPR Illinois

When Illinois approved a new school funding formula in 2017, it didn't make funding equitable across all districts overnight. But it has opened the eyes of the State Board of Education.

The new formula, called "evidence based funding," is calculated by weighing each district's financial needs against the economic resources of the surrounding community. This comparison revealed that some districts have less than half the resources they need, while other districts have three times what they need.

Photo illustration by Søren Daum

Statistics show that only about one-third of sexual assaults get reported to authorities. But a new Illinois law removes some of the barriers that could prevent rape victims from coming forward. Dubbed "the survivors’ bill of rights," this legislation offers protections plus some small comforts for people reporting sexual assault.

College Illinois!

No matter how good you've been this year, there's one thing we know you're not getting for Christmas: A pre-paid tuition contract from the state's College Illinois! plan.

Established in 1999, the plan was a way for parents or grandparents to pay tuition in advance through a contract. But Eric Zarnikow, director of the Illinois Student Assistance Commission, decided to stop selling those contracts last year.

Courtesy of Kelly Services

One of the new laws that goes into effect next year will allow school districts to use third-party recruiting firms to address Illinois' severe teacher shortage. So if you live in a school district that struggles to find subs, you may find your child being taught by a Kelly Girl.

That's the company's original name. It changed to Kelly Services in the 1970s. Kelly has been helping staff schools in other states for about 20 years. Now, it's eager to add Illinois to its portfolio.

EMSA Facebook

Last spring, Illinois lawmakers approved legislation that would strip a state commission of its power to overrule local school boards. But after Gov. Bruce Rauner vetoed the bill, some state senators changed their positions, while others disappeared from view.

The vote came late on a Wednesday afternoon. It was below freezing in Springfield, and starting to snow in Chicago. Did that matter? Maybe.

“There were people sitting in their chairs who were ‘yeses’ last time who did not vote,” says Sean Denney, the lobbyist who has been pushing this bill for six years.

Courtesy of the J.B. Pritzker campaign

Gov.-elect J.B. Pritzker today announced his seventh transition team. This one is charged with advising Pritzker on policies for all levels of education, and has almost three dozen members, including 10 advocacy group leaders, six lawmakers (all Democrats), four public university officials, three community college officials,  and one current principal.

Courtesy of School District U-46

Tony Sanders is the CEO of Unit 46 in Elgin — the state's second-largest school district, with almost 40,000 students. Right now, he's short at least 30 teachers. He's using retired teachers as long-term substitutes. Even though those retirees can teach only 120 days out of the 178-day school year, Sanders knows he’s got it better than superintendents in districts that don’t have a deep bench of subs.

"Yeah, if it weren't for retirees, we would really be in a jam,” Sanders says. “Luckily, a lot of retirees like to come back and still be in a classroom."

Carter Staley / NPR Illinois

When the Illinois state legislature passed its new school funding law, it changed more than just the dollar amount each school district receives. It also changed the number of hours of instruction schools have to provide.

Under the old law, schools had to provide at least five “clock hours” of instruction per school day. Now, there’s no minimum number of hours — or minutes — because that provision of the school code got wiped out by the legislature.

Dusty Rhodes / NPR Illinois

A recent study by the Institute for Higher Education Policy shows that the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign stands out among similar schools for its low percentage of minority students.

illinoisreportcard.com / Illinois State Board of Education

In Illinois, more than 80 percent of all public school teachers are white. But odds are, most of the children in their classrooms are Hispanic, Black, Asian, or a mixture of races. Only 48 percent of public school students are white.

Emily Fox is trying to bring those numbers closer together. She is “director of educator effectiveness” at the Illinois State Board of Education.

Carter Staley / NPR Illinois

The Illinois State Board of Education has unveiled a new labeling system for schools, with roughly 550 Illinois schools now being tagged "under-performing," and another 200 called "lowest performing."

The Love U Give

Oct 26, 2018
Dusty Rhodes / NPR Illinois

Earlier this week, a Springfield teacher took a group of students to a movie theater to view a popular new teen drama based on a bestselling novel. It was a special screening just for students who had earned the right to be there by reading the book and writing a paper about it. Of course, using a movie to bribe kids into reading literature is one of the oldest tricks in the teacher playbook. But that’s not what was happening with this movie, this piece of literature, and this teacher.

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