Memphis officials launch FAFSA month to encourage high school seniors

Carver High School student Kristen Tate, spoke at a press conference about filling out the FAFSA form.

Seeking to boost the percentage of Shelby County high school graduates going to college, educational advocates and community leaders have launched a month-long campaign to assist high school seniors and adult learners in completing the paperwork needed to secure financial aid.

The deadline for submitting the Free Application for Student Aid, or FAFSA form, is Feb. 15.

The initiative was announced Thursday by city and educational leaders in Memphis in conjunction with Graduate Memphis, a program spearheaded by Leadership Memphis and Memphis Talent Dividend, two community advocacy groups.

Their goal is to get at least 80 percent of the city’s seniors to complete the FAFSA form.

As part of the campaign, community centers will hold rallies,  churches will distribute resources, and college counselors will visit high schools to help guide seniors through the FAFSA paperwork.

“We need to do everything in our power to get kids to get to college,” said Memphis Mayor A C Wharton. “I know there are challenges at every level of education attainment.”

Eighty-three percent of the district’s students already have signed up for the Tennessee Promise Scholarship, which begins this fall and essentially waives tuition at a state community college or technical school for two years. Local leaders hope the Promise Scholarship will boost Memphis’ dismally low college completion rate.

In October, Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson praised seniors at Carver High School, the first Memphis school to sign up all of its seniors for Tennessee Promise. But the real challenge is getting those same seniors to complete and turn in their FAFSA form.  Without the form, students are ineligible for Tennessee Promise.

At Carver High School, which once was at risk of being shuttered by the district for under-enrollment and dismal academic results, only 48 of the school’s 80 seniors had successfully completed their FAFSA form as of Dec. 5.

The problem has stumped Memphis’ education community for years. Last year, a third of the district’s seniors failed to complete their FAFSA forms.  Reasons ranged from intimidation and fear to confusion from students and parents alike.

Just under half of Memphis’ graduates went on to a post-secondary school last year, according to the district.  The dismal rate, one of the lowest in the nation, is especially frustrating in a community coping with high unemployment and crime rates. The city has spent more than $5 billion fighting poverty in a single year, five times as much as it spent on the school system, according to some estimates.

Why higher percentages of students don’t go to college is complex and includes lack of preparation and affordability. But often, it’s the FAFSA form that stands between students and scholarship and grant money. A major challenge is getting parents to hand over W-2 tax statements. Many parents fear they will lose government benefits or think they have to wait until they complete their tax returns, which can be too late to qualify for scholarships and grants.

“This is really a campaign geared toward parents,” said Bernice Butler, the director of Memphis Talent Dividend and Graduate Memphis.

Kristen Tate, a 17-year-old senior at Carver High, said she learned of the FAFSA requirement recently at Bickford Community Center. She said completing the form online was fairly straightforward and that her mother now must fill out information about her income, savings and employment status.

“I didn’t know any of that information,” Kristen said Thursday. “But I think this will be a great opportunity for me.”





The deadline to apply to FAFSA is Feb. 15.  For more information on events and how to become a mentor to a Memphis high school senior, visit http://www.fafsamemphis.com/upcoming-events.html.

union power

Charter teachers won big in nation’s first strike. What now?

PHOTO: Yana Kunichoff / Chalkbeat
Teachers from Acero charter schools in Chicago protest stalled negotiations Oct. 24, 2018, as they readied to vote on authorizing a strike.

Some 500 unionized teachers joined in the nation’s first charter strike last week, and succeeded in negotiating wage increases, smaller class sizes and a shorter school day. Their gains could foreshadow next year’s citywide contract negotiations — between the Chicago Teachers Union, with its contract expiring in June, and Chicago Public Schools.

“The issue of class size is going to be huge,” said Chris Geovanis, the union’s director of communications. “It is a critically important issue in every school.”

Unlike their counterparts in charters, though, teachers who work at district-run schools can’t technically go on strike to push through a cap on the number of students per class. That’s because the Illinois Education Labor Relations Act defines what issues non-charter public school teachers can bargain over, and what issues can lead to a strike.

An impasse on issues of compensation or those related to working conditions, such as length of the school day or teacher evaluations, could precipitate a strike. But disagreements over class sizes or school closures, among other issues, cannot be the basis for a strike.

The number of students per class has long been a point of contention among both district and charter school teachers.

Educators at Acero had hopes of pushing the network to limit class sizes to 24-28 students, depending on the grade. However, as Acero teachers capped their fourth day on the picket line, they reached an agreement with the charter operator on a cap of 30 students — down from the current cap of 32 students.

Andy Crooks, a special education apprentice, also known as a teacher’s aide, at Acero’s Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz school and a member of the teachers bargaining team, said that even having two fewer students in a classroom would make a huge difference.

“You really do get a lot more time with your students,” Crooks said. “And if you are thinking about kindergarten in particular, two less 5-year-olds really can help set the tone of the classroom.”

In district-run schools, classes are capped at 28 students in kindergarten through third grade, and at 31 students in fourth through sixth grade. But a survey by the advocacy group Parents 4 Teachers, which supports educators taking on inequality, found that during the 2017-2018 school year, 21 percent of K-8 classrooms had more students than district guidelines allowed. In 18 elementary school classrooms, there were 40 or more students.

The issue came up at last week’s Board of Education meeting, at which Ivette Hernandez, a parent of a first-grader at Virgil Grissom Elementary School in the city’s Hegewisch neighborhood, said her son’s classes have had more than 30 students in them. When the children are so young and active — and when they come into classrooms at so many different skill levels — “the teachers can’t handle 30 kids in one class,” she told the board.

Alderman Sue Garza, a former counselor, accompanied Hernandez. She also spoke before the board about classroom overcrowding — worrying aloud that, in some grades at one school in particular, the number of students exceeded the building’s fire codes. (Board chair Frank Clark said a district team would visit the school to ensure compliance fire safety policies.)

While the Chicago Teachers Union aren’t technically allowed to strike over class sizes, the union does have a history of pushing the envelope when it comes to bargaining.

Back in 2012, when the Chicago Teachers Union last went on strike, they ended up being able to secure the first limit on class sizes in 20 years because the district permitted the union to bargain over class size.

They also led a bargaining campaign that included discussion over racial disparities in Chicago education and school closures, arguing that these trends impacted the working conditions of teachers.

“Even if you can’t force an employer to bargain over an issue, you can push them to bargain over the impact of an issue,” Bob Bruno, a labor professor at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, explained.

The Chicago Teachers Union also emerged from its 2012 negotiations with guarantees of additional “wraparound services,” such as access to onsite social workers and school counselors.

What's Your Education Story?

As the 2018 school year begins, join us for storytelling from Indianapolis educators

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy/Chalkbeat
Sarah TeKolste, right, and Lori Jenkins at a Teacher Story Slam, in April.

In partnership with Teachers Lounge Indy, Chalkbeat is hosting another teacher story slam this fall featuring educators from across the city.

Over the past couple of years, Chalkbeat has brought readers personal stories from teachers and students through the events. Some of our favorites touched on how a teacher won the trust of her most skeptical student, why another teacher decided to come out to his students, and one educator’s call to ramp up the number of students pursuing a college education.

The event, 5:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 13, is free and open to the public — please RSVP here.

Event details:

5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.
Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018
Tube Factory artspace
1125 Cruft St., Indianapolis, IN 46203
Get tickets here and find more on Facebook

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