Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Transforming the Early Education Workforce

After recently supporting the production of Transforming the Early Childhood Workforce: A Call to Action for the State of Illinois, the McCormick Foundation’s Education team is now working in coordination with Cathy Main from the University of Illinois at Chicago and the Governor’s Office of Early Childhood Development to communicate the report recommendations to the broader early childhood community. We will be hosting conversations around the state to get stakeholder feedback, and will be coordinating with other workforce initiatives to create a statewide action plan aimed to improve quality and increase compensation for early childhood educators.

VA Delays Paying GI Benefits to Student Vets

This fall, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) left thousands of veterans and military families using the GI Bill waiting longer than normal for their tuition payments and housing stipends. These delays left many veteran students own their own to find alternative ways to cover their rent and other living expenses, in addition to sometimes facing penalties from their schools.

This goes against the original goal of the Bill, signed into law in 1944, “to provide immediate rewards for World War II veterans including making low-interest mortgages available and granting stipends covering tuition and expenses for veterans attending college or trade schools.”

Much has changed since the initial passage of the law.

Understanding the new challenges facing post-9/11 veterans, Congress amended the bill in 2008 to greatly expand the benefits offered through the bill including a housing allowance, book stipend, and other additional benefits.

But, like with most things, the ticker tape parades ended, reality sets in, and veterans are often left to pull together the remnants of broken promises.

This was all too apparent this fall when the VA failed to make GI benefit payments on time. After receiving a flood of complaints from GI Bill recipients impacted by the delay, veteran advocate groups, and public and private organizations, Congress introduced the Forever GI Bill Housing Payment Fulfillment Act to help ensure that the VA reimburses veterans for missed or underpaid Forever GI Bill housing benefits.

The bipartisan Bill recently passed overwhelmingly in the House of Representatives.

What’s next? A Senate passage and a signature from the President would mean an end to the late fees, dropped classes, and other punishments schools imposed on veteran and GI Bill recipients as a result of VA’s processing delays. 

Monday, December 17, 2018

#CivicsIsBack in Illinois Schools

On August 21, 2015, Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner signed bipartisan legislation requiring high school students to successfully complete a semester of civics prior to graduation. The law took effect at the beginning of the 2016-2017 school year, but the McCormick Foundation’s leadership and support of course implementation efforts began upon passage.

The absence of state funding for implementation necessitated the commitment of private dollars. The McCormick Foundation has long invested in school-based civic learning and rallied the local philanthropic sector to raise an additional $1 million for implementation annually over three years to underwrite the #CivicsIsBack Campaign. Funding partners include Allstate, Boeing Corporation, Chicago Community Trust, Crown Family Philanthropies, Joyce Foundation, MacArthur Foundation, and Spencer Foundation.

Teacher professional development is central to the #CivicsIsBack Campaign given the new course requirement and the proven civic learning practices embedded within. These include structured discussions of current and controversial issues, service learning, and simulations of democratic processes. Prior to passage of the law, four in ten high schools offered a civics or government courses, but had no requirement in place, and 13% didn’t offer even an elective course under the umbrella of civics.

#CivicsIsBack is truly a statewide effort. While two-thirds of high school students reside in in Chicagoland, 60% of Illinois’ high schools are located throughout the rest of the state. In order to meet the needs of all teachers, schools, and districts, we knew that regional institutional partners were imperative as sites for professional development and trusted local partners that had existing relationships with teachers. These sites are scattered across the state and include colleges, universities, and regional offices of education.

Thirty-eight veteran civics teachers were recruited in every educational region outside of Chicago Public Schools, to act as mentors for schools and educators needing support to implement the new requirement. Additionally, these mentors were also paired with Lead Mentor Mary Ellen Daneels to deliver regional summer workshops and more localized sessions for schools and districts throughout the school year. Since October 2015, the McCormick team and Teacher Mentors have provided a combined 1,252 hours of professional development to 8,937 Illinois teachers.

Chicagoland has an abundance of civic learning programs and resources. Through the Campaign, we sought to provide a larger platform for these organizations to share their resources outside of northern Illinois. These organizations helped to train Teacher Mentors and adapted their curriculum and resources for them to disseminate with colleagues, schools, and districts in their respective regions. Core partners are the Constitutional Rights Foundation Chicago, Facing History, Mikva Challenge, News Literacy Project, and We Schools.

The Foundation is also deeply committed to the city we call home, and are a proud supporter of Chicago Public Schools (CPS) Office of Social Science and Civic Engagement. CPS has built the nation’s preeminent civic learning program for a large, urban district. The district has designed a year-long civics course, Participate, in alignment with the law, that is now offered in nearly all of the district’s 92 high schools.

Thanks to the leadership of CEO Janice Jackson, CPS has also scaled student voice committees (SVCs) in all of the district’s high schools and an increasing number of elementary schools that serve the middle grades (6-8). SVCs convene a cross-section of students to discuss issues of common concern in their school. They meet regularly with building administration to determine if and how they can be resolved.

The #CivicsIsBack Campaign has partnered with the Center for Information Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) to study of the impact of our comprehensive implementation efforts. This includes the fidelity by which teachers, schools, and districts have implemented the law, the impact of our teacher professional development offerings, and ultimately, students’ exposure to proven civic learning practices and related civic engagement outcomes.

Students enrolled in civics courses were significantly more likely to report discussing current events and controversial issues, including issues they care about personally, and to consider multiple viewpoints with respect to these issues (see graph below).

Civics course participants also demonstrated strong information literacy skills, were better able to determine the trustworthiness of a news source (92% to 88%), identify political bias in online information (89% to 81%), and create or share something online related to a social issue (48% to 36%).

These students also have stronger civic values, including a responsibility to be concerned about state and local issues, to believe that they can make a difference in their communities, and to exhibit trust in fellow community members (see graph below).

Finally, students in civics courses feel more knowledgeable about and skillful in participating in politics (62% to 46%), but they are much more likely to report engagement in a range of civic behaviors:

  • Helping to make their city or town a better place for people to live (38% vs. 27%).
  • Volunteering their time (at a hospital, day care, etc.; 37% vs. 30%).
  • Discussing politics or public issues online (36% vs. 30%).
  • Serving as a leader in a group or organization (50% vs. 40%).

The #CivicsIsBack Campaign concludes in June 2019, but our efforts to strengthen school-based civic learning in Illinois are ongoing. In the coming year, with our partners at the Florida Joint Center on Citizenship, we will launch a free online course series centered on proven civic learning practices where participants can earn microcredentials in each. We also plan to advocate for integration of civic learning into the middle grades via state legislation. And finally, the Democracy Schools Initiative will release revised civic assessment tools to assist schools in strengthening civic learning across the curriculum, in extracurricular activities, and in the organizational culture of the institution as a whole.

Engaged Grantmaking: Collaborating with Communities

More funders are finding ways to promote the voice and leadership of the communities they partner with and serve by engaging them in the grantmaking process. This process, often referred to as participatory grantmaking, helps shifts the traditional power imbalances that exist in philanthropy by engaging the grantees who are affected by the issues that funding is addressing in the decision-making process for grants. For some foundations, this means including grantees in the process for setting priorities, developing strategies, conducting research, and sitting on boards or advisory councils. While others are using various elements of participatory grantmaking approach based on what their institutions, polices, and structures will allow. At the core of this practice is understanding that those closest to the issue, including those with lived experience, have the knowledge the solve the challenges.

In the last year, the McCormick Foundation’s Communities Program embarked on its own journey of participatory grantmaking through its place-based work in Englewood – a predominately Black neighborhood on Chicago’s south side. The Program supports the activities of the Englewood Quality of Life Plan (QLP), which is the result of a community-driven process that engaged hundreds of residents, community leaders, and stakeholders. Five task forces representing priority issue areas (education and youth development, health and wellness, housing, jobs and economic development, and safety) were formed to develop goals and strategies to help revitalize the community. Teamwork Englewood (TWE) a community-based social service agency, serves as the coordinating organization for the QLP and provides oversight and project management for the work implemented by the task forces.

During fall 2017, the Communities Program established Impact Englewood, a McCormick Foundation Fund, in partnership with TWE and leaders of the QLP to provide a vehicle for including community input for grant strategies supporting the QLP. Englewood leaders and residents worked with the Communities Program’s Development staff to raise donations which were matched by McCormick and each task force submitted grant applications for projects and initiatives advancing strategies of the QLP.

Communities Program’s grantmaking staff co-created an LOI and grant application with feedback from TWE and QLP leaders and provided training and technical assistance through weekly “office hours” for task force groups with less experience creating and submitting grant proposals. An advisory committee comprised of QLP leaders, Teamwork Englewood, and Communities Program staff went through a process of reviewing grant proposals and recommended six grants totaling $140,000 which will provide initial funding for QLP projects.

The Communities Program is still on a journey of learning how to partner more effectively with communities and understanding how to use participatory grantmaking as a tool for promoting community voice, elevating power, capacity and leadership towards problem-solving, improving community-level outcomes, and closing racial gaps. In our first year of exploring participatory grantmaking, we saw that building trust and being transparent with community are cornerstones for this work. We learned that sharing and managing expectations – both from the community and the Foundation – is critical for moving the work forward and being flexible and willing to think outside of the box helped us collaborate better. We also learned that participatory grantmaking requires a great deal of time and resources, and as we continue this journey we will think about ways to build a sustainable infrastructure for participatory grantmaking with the community and implement lessons learned from our first year for continued and long-term success.

A Garden Colonel McCormick Would Have Loved

When military veterans gather at Cantigny it’s usually in or outside the newly renovated First Division Museum, a monument to those who served. But during the growing season you’ll now find some veterans behind the park’s massive greenhouse as well.

They come to learn, and they come to grow. It’s mostly about vegetables, but also camaraderie and mutual support.

Welcome to the Veterans Garden at Cantigny, located between the greenhouse and Roosevelt Road. Established in 2016, regular visitors would never know it’s there. The garden is a fenced-in series of circular raised beds, or “pods,” where local veterans from various eras—usually about a dozen—spend Saturday mornings getting their hands dirty and sharing stories about their service time or anything else that comes up. This is social gardening at its best.

Along the way, the vets produce some mighty fine tomatoes, peppers, squash, carrots, beans, beets and zucchini.

To be sure, it’s not beginners luck. The green-thumb wannabees are guided by Master Gardeners Fritz Porter of Glen Ellyn and Logan Wasson of Naperville. Every week from May through early September the two garden gurus share tips for successful vegetable growing around a big table inside the greenhouse. Then they all head out to the pods for hands-on learning and discovery.

For most of the vets, the experience is all new and, yes, an opportunity to grow personally. A few hours in nature with some new friends can go a long way. Especially friends who have much in common.

Most participants are from the Aurora Vet Center and the Midwest Shelter for Homeless Veterans in Wheaton. All veterans are welcome, which you’d expect at Cantigny.

Indeed, a Veterans Garden at Cantigny seems perfectly placed. Former property owner Robert R. McCormick took great interest in crop growing on the Cantigny farm, and we know he enjoyed hosting reunions at Cantigny for his World War I comrades. If alive today, it’s easy to guess where the Colonel might spend a few Saturday mornings in the summer.