Illinois Public Media News
For a fifth straight year, a history education project headed up by the Urbana school district is getting a million-dollar federal grant.
The American History Teachers Collaborative is aimed at giving teachers the research time and resources they need to paint a more realistic and gripping picture of history in their classrooms.
The group's coordinator, Kathy Barbour, says when teachers conduct their own research, they can teach their students about national history through a local lens.
"For the teachers to be able to bring newspaper articles or photographs or documents or letters from right here in central Illinois and bring those to their classrooms, it's a very powerful thing for the students to be able to see that history happens here and we're tied to the bigger picture," Barbour said.
For instance, Barber says teachers have found articles and other documents about events in Champaign County that illustrate the national civil rights movement. She says the money helps fund workshops for teachers in seven area districts as well as research trips to museums.
Four former presidents and chancellors of the University of Illinois are calling for a change in how members are appointed to the university's board of trustees.
The four, led by former U of I president Stanley Ikenberry, made their recommendation in a letter to the Illinois Admissions Review Commission, which is investigating charges that under-qualified students gained admission based on political influence. In many cases, the pressure to admit the students came from trustees.
Ikenberry says that the roots of the problem lie in having all university trustees selected by the governor. "I think that makes the university vulnerable," he says, "and I think it removes the checks and balances that would otherwise be important to healthy university governance."
In the letter, Ikenberry, former president James Stukel and former Urbana campus chancellors Morton Weir and Michael Aiken suggest a long-term solution. They argue that the U of I Alumni Association should elect six of the nine trustees on the U of I board in a "fair and transparent" manner, with only three selected by the governor. Ikenberry says many universities, such as Penn State, give alumni associations such appointment powers.
The Admissions Review Commission was scheduled to hear from three U of I trustees Tuesday afternoon --- David Dorris, Kenneth Schmidt and former chairman Lawrence Eppley.
Garden Hills Elementary School gets the fine arts magnet. Booker T. Washington Elementary School gets the science and math magnet. Those are the recommendations the Champaign School Board approved Monday night for the two schools slated for major renovations.
The Magnet School Planning Committee started developing the recommendations in March. Deputy Superintendent for Student Achievement and Equity Dorland Norris said the committee looked for themes that would be a good match for each school and would attract diverse families.
Norris said the administration's plan to move the Transitional Bilingual Education program from BTWashington School to the larger Garden Hills School was one reason the committee picked the fine arts theme for Garden Hills. She says foreign languages will be a major part of the offerings in the Garden Hills fine arts magnet program.
Garden Hills is being extensively renovated and BTWashington is being completely rebuilt. Both schools will get additional classrooms to meet requirements of the Consent Decree.
The state commission that's investigating allegations that political clout was used to get underqualified students into the University of Illinois is meeting again.
The commission will meet Wednesday in Chicago.
Governor Pat Quinn formed the panel last month to look into the university's admissions system after word of the use of clout first surfaced in the Chicago Tribune. The commission is led by former federal Judge Abner Mikva and is due to issue a report next month.
Among those scheduled to testify is Heidi Hurd, former dean of the College of Law. She's now a law professor.
During testimony Monday, an assistant dean said that over four years, the university forced the law school to accept 24 students with political connections who wouldn't have been admitted otherwise.
UPDATED: Tuesday, July 07, 2009
The Chancellor of the University of Illinois's flagship campus in Champaign-Urbana admitted his role Monday in getting politically connected applicants accepted to the school.
Testifying in Chicago before the Illinois Admissions Review Commission, Chancellor Richard Herman said the university should abolish its practice of admitting students based on clout.
Herman said he typically got 40 recommendations a year-most of them from trustees. He admits he was often the one with the final say over whether politically connected students were admitted. In one instance, Herman a trustee passed along a request to admit a student from then Governor Rod Blagojevich.
"Did I follow that directive?", said Herman. "Yes. That was a rough 24-hour period for me personally, and I am apologetic about it."
Herman said he wanted to "compensate" the law school for taking the trustee's "dicey" student. So he asked the trustee to find five jobs for graduating law school students. But Herman denies any quid pro quo.
The chancellor said he believed at the time that admitting the students would help the U of I, by showing they were being responsive.
Commissioner Maribeth Vander Weele wanted to know who the university was being responsive to. "By donors? By legislators? By the governor's office?", she asked.
"I suppose the answer to that would be yes", Herman replied.
But Commission Chairman Abner Mikva said the "responsiveness" might look very different to an Illinois resident whose own child was denied admission to the U of I, while the child of someone with an inferior record but superior clout was let in.
"Wouldn't you be very upset?", asked Mikva, asking Herman to put himself in that resident's shoes.
"I think that is really the reason for this hearing, sir, and I would be," said Herman.
"Especially since you know your tax money was paying at least 18 percent of that university's bills", continued Mikva.
"Agreed, sir," replied Herman.
Herman testified in Chicago, before the commission, which was set up by Governor Pat Quinn to investigate the role political influence played in student admissions to the University of Illinois.
After his testimony, a reporter asked Herman if he felt his job was on the line, "I feel I can continue to go forward," said the chancellor. "I feel I, others perhaps, but I made some mistakes --- from which I've learned."
Herman says he now supports an end to the U of I's so-called "Category I" list of politically connected students --- a list which the university has already put on suspension. He also promises to enact reforms such as requiring all requests on applicants' behalf to be made in writing.
The Admissions Review Commission is due to issue its report next month.
School officials in Champaign County have identified 355 homeless children attending local public schools --- mostly in the Champaign and Urbana districts. A government grant pays for their textbook fees and other charges. Now a private grant will provide money for emergency situations.
Champaign-Urbana Schools Foundation Executive Director Gail Rost says resolving emergency problems are key to keeping homeless kids in school --- and that's the first step to a good education. "So if there's a child whose family has slept in the rest stop and doesn't have a coat, we can buy that coat", explains Rost.
The United Way of Champaign County is providing 6-thousand dollars a year for two years to pay for the emergency needs of homeless schoolchildren. But Rost fears that may not be enough. She says the money they sought was meant to pay for the needs of about 200 school children, and their number has grown about 75-percent since the application was made. Rost says that with 355 homeless schoolchildren in Champaign County, the United Way grant amounts to "less than 20 dollars a kid" per year.
The Champaign-Urbana Schools Foundation teamed up with the Regional Office of Education of Champaign and Ford Counties to apply for the grant. School social workers who identify emergency needs can draw on the grant funds through the R-O-E.
Three of the six elementary schools in the Urbana School District failed to achieve Adequate Yearly Progress, under the No Child Left Behind Act.
Leal, Yankee Ridge and Thomas Paine Schools achieved the standard overall, but not for the subgroup of Economically Disadvantaged Students. To make the grade this year, 70 percent of students in each school and each subgroup had to meet or exceed state exam standards.
District 116 Assistant Superintendent Don Owen says the schools came close --- and better test scores from less than 20 students would have brought the three schools up to the federal standard.
"We're going to take a very active role with the three elementary schools that did not make AYP, to make sure that their School Improvement Plans are really focused on closing achievement gaps," says Owen.
Leal, Yankee Ridge and Thomas Paine Schools do not face any sanctions, because this is the first year they've fallen short of federal standards.
Wiley, Prairie and Martin Luther King Schools in Urbana all made Adequate Yearly Progress, as did Urbana Middle School. District 116 officials are still waiting for the results from exams at Urbana High School.
The University of Illinois' monthly gauge of economic performance has hit its lowest point since it was established 14 years ago.
But the author of the Flash Index says the current recession still hasn't reached the depths of the early 1980's economic slowdown. Economist Fred Giertz also says there are promising signs that the recession may be approaching an end, perhaps by the end of the year. Even so, Giertz says statistics before then are bound to get slightly worse.
"Some of the things that go into the Index don't turn around very rapidly," says Giertz, "in particular, employment, which has a lot to do with the individual income tax collections. So this is not a surprise. I think the only surprise would be that it went down a little bit more than might be expected."
The U of I Flash Index measures Illinois tax proceeds to evaluate the state of the economy. With any number above 100 suggesting economic growth, the June rate checked in at only 92. That's more than two points lower than May.
A new one-cent sales tax to fund school facilities will take effect in Champaign County next year. The Champaign County Board voted Thursday night to ratify the tax which voters approved in April.
County Board members did not have to enact the full one cent sales tax approved by voters. And county board member Stan James suggested a lower amount. In light of the bad economy, the Rantoul Township Republican said school districts should settle for a quarter-cent sales tax instead. "They can always come back and ask for more if the need is there", said James. "But now's the wrong time to send a message to people that are out there hurting that we're going to raise their taxes."
But the County Board voted down that suggestion. Urbana Democrat Tom Betz, who says he opposes sales taxes in general, argued the county board should heed the will of the voters --- even though the referendum won with a lower voter turnout than the first unsuccessful referendum in November. "Those votes need to count," said Betz of the April referendum result. "And the ballot proposition said 'at one percent'. It didn't say 'at a quarter percent', it said 'one percent'. It was promoted as one percent."
School officials attending the county board meeting say they'll use part of the sales tax money to pay off existing construction debt and lower property taxes. Urbana School Board President John Dimit says he expects all school boards in the county to spend the sales tax money quote "exactly how we promised the voters".
A writer following trends in higher education says the Chicago Tribune reports of a 'clout list' of University of Illinois students admitted via political connections will no doubt yield inquiries at other institutions. But senior reporter Eric Hoover with the Washington-based Chronicle of Higher Education says the issue isn't too far removed from what happens elsewhere. AM 580's Jeff Bossert spoke with Hoover:
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