Far beyond the skyscrapers and the non-stop howls in the Windy City, there lies a unique facility where hope shines a light in the dim hallways. The Kishwaukee Education Consortium (KEC) provides a service to embattled, young students who’ve been left with one option when it comes to graduating high school. Split into two sections, the KEC focuses on teaching basic education curriculums as well as vocational skills like automotive and early child care.
The school takes in about 100 students for the alternative education classes from all over DeKalb County, ranging from seventh grade to senior year. Cases vary between each student, but this facility is the last chance for students in and out of correctional centers, chronic truants, and ones with multiple suspensions or one-to-two year expulsions. Some classes may even have students from every grade in them, which can be a struggle to accommodate.
But this is not a typical school with a mind-numbing, complacent approach—KEC’s staff staff attempts to inspire their students every single day. Some teachers even volunteer to roll-up their sleeves to wash cafeteria dishes, or after teaching math, they prepare the lunches for the students so that the kids can be provided at least one warm meal a day.
Established in the mid 1990’s, this alternative school represents the only school in the state that caters to an entire county and is not attached to one specific district. With a staff of about 30 teachers, I had the chance to sit down with Tony Martin, who teaches English and History at the school, and recently signed his fourth yearly contract.
“It’s a real community feel,” he told me as we talked about the students and the lively small classrooms.
All of the schools that send kids to KEC pay for “x” amount of seats and they cycle students in throughout the year. The length of the stay depends on behavior and can range from a few weeks or staying all the way through to senior year. Unfortunately, the school can’t help kids with severe IP’s (Interagency Plans) that need special accommodations due to their shrinking budget.
The state of Illinois used to assist with funding their alternative program but ended it in early 2016— when Governor Bruce Rauner slashed a majority of the funds to the school. Now, they solely depend on grants and funding from the schools that send their students to KEC. When I asked Mr. Martin if the grants meet the demands needed, he was frank.
“To operate to the fullest extent that we’d like to be, we’re not even close. I’m basically afraid of losing my job every year.”
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Since KEC is propped up by so many different schools in the county, the teachers are not able to form a union or to be insured because they’re not under one district. Most of the funding they receive comes from the sending schools because of the vocational training section of the facility. Mr. Martin informs me, “If we only had alternative education, the school would not still exist.”
The staff and teachers suffer from the lack of funding as well. Their wages are subject to being cut as well due to not receiving any revenue from property taxes. Out of all of the schools that contribute students, those teachers with the lowest salaries still make about five thousand dollars more than teachers that have taught at KEC for a few years. By cutting massive amounts to KEC’s budget, it puts pressure on the teachers to decide whether to go broke by staying or to leave the school. He says, “Our administrators make the same salaries as some first year teachers.”
In order to provide the best education for his classes, Mr. Martin has to put in about 65 hours a week. All teachers must sign a yearly contract because there is no guarantee that the school will remain open for the following school year. This puts all of the students at risk to being dropped by the state while they strive to receive their diplomas.
Again, we see this pattern of draining state funds from poorer schools and wait until they can no longer operate on the strict budget and eventually have to close down. Within the same district at one of the sending schools, teachers picket to raise their wages by voting yes to raising property taxes.
“I handle the kids the sending schools can’t deal with and I’ll be lucky to make 40K by the time I’m in my late 30’s,” he said reluctantly because he wants to help. In comparison to the KEC school that receives zero funding from property taxes, the hypocrisy needs to be heard.
The limitations on KEC are paramount. They do not have a full science lab, musical instruments or music classes. They do not have a budget that can create before or after school programs.
Besides the lack of funding, one of the biggest obstacles in providing these extracurricular activities is the issue of transportation. Students get bussed from the home campuses and have to wait outside for the KEC buses to pick them up depending on the school. Whether they wait in a blizzard or waiting in 100 degree heat, they must remain outside of the buildings or the schools can take measures of involving the police.
Providing supplies for the classes is also a major problem. Most of the materials for the students come out of the teachers’ pockets. After two years of waiting, Alex was finally able to acquire a projector for his class. When it comes to computers, only 16 out of 30 computers actually work. Due to the shrinking budget, the school can’t afford to maintain the computers in the lab.
One of the major concerns for the future of the school is what will happen if any bill similar to the ideas from Betsy DeVos pass. The result of these ideas will close any alternative programs and would require these programs to operate in one of the sending schools. This would put some students at a disadvantage if they are banned from entering the public schools.
This would add limitations on who could have opportunities to take tests such as the ACT and having the chance of getting accepted into college. It supports the idea that the state is purposefully perpetuating the cycle of uneducated youth in Illinois. In a state where the Mayor of Chicago, Rahm Emanuel, decided to close down 50 of the lower income schools on the West and South sides of Chicago in 2013, we see the same pattern when it comes to alternative education programs.
The complete lack of support from the community, the state, and the politicians in power, leave close to zero options left for the students and their families. The students feel segregated from their own communities and it begs the question: where are they welcomed?
It appears that they will be set up for failure and left with the temptation to fall back into trouble with the law. Illinois prioritizes which schools deserve attention and funding. He tells me, “Every student has the right to be educated, does not matter if they’re labeled as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ students.” The Kishwaukee Education Consortium is in desperate need of help from the state.
The students and staff need the state’s support because it should be a concern of what will happen to these children without a proper education. The teachers, the staff, and the parents of the students pay property taxes and it is time for Illinois to take responsibility in giving some of that money back into a school that is fighting to stay open.
When a state voluntarily chooses to close off support to alternative programs, they voluntarily set these students up for a difficult road ahead. Preventing students from the chance to better their lives makes it seem as if the state wants them to fail. Rehabilitation in education is the way for them to stay out of the corrupt prison system.
Unfortunately, this is not uncommon to the Chicagoland education system where those in power take advantage of the most vulnerable students and close down their schools.